I suppose that among us mere mortals the only person who could give first hand testimony to the question, “What happens to the soul after death?” was Lazarus, and he left no extant literary remains. At best we have an old story which relates that after Christ raised him after he was dead for four days he never smiled, since he could not forget the suffering of the souls in Hades, the land of the dead. If the story is true, it bodes ill for those who died untouched by the grace of Christ.
But though the Church does not have an authoritative “tell all” memoir from one who had died and had been brought back to life again, it does have a long and sizable tradition from which to draw. Just how long and sizable this tradition is may seen from the book Life after Death according to the Orthodox Tradition, written by Jean-Claude Larchet, and available through the Orthodox Research Institute. The book’s value lies in the comprehensive survey it undertakes, as it quotes from a wide selection of the Fathers. Anyone can write a book on the fate of the soul after death, if one views the matter selectively, picking and choosing among patristic texts to support one’s pre-determined view, and many have written such books. Sometimes the writing and the debate between the writers can grow a bit nasty, as with the famous debate between Seraphim Rose and Lev Puhalo. (The debate has also grown a bit one-sided, since Fr. Seraphim died in 1982 and can no longer answer his detractors.) The present volume by Larchet is written in a more scholarly and measured tone, and rather than arguing a case it simply presents the vast amount of patristic material available and lets it speak for itself. When one reads the many patristic citations, it quickly becomes clear that Fr. Seraphim was the horse to bet on.
The book structures the patristic material according to the progressive journey of the soul after death. Thus it has chapters on what happens to the soul at the moment of death, and from the first day to the third day after death, and from the third day to the ninth, and from the ninth day to the fortieth, and after the fortieth day to the time of the last judgment. This is a convenient way of grouping the material, and especially since it builds on the Church’s long-standing practice of commemorating the departed on the first, third, ninth, and fortieth days after death. But it imposes on the material more systematization and temporality than the material actually allows, even though it compensates for this somewhat by acknowledging the symbolic nature of some of the descriptions of what happens after death and the altered nature of time after we have left this earth. Grouping experiences into what happens, for example, from the third to the ninth day is a handy device for organizing disparate material, but one must sit lightly on it as a temporal programme.
At the moment of death and as one begins to step through the dark door from this visible world to the invisible one, it seems that one confronts in one’s final moments the realities which hitherto were invisible to the naked eye. One sees the demons, accusing, lying, and grasping. One sees one’s guardian angel, and possibly the saints who may come to welcome the departing Christian soul as it steps from this world into the next. This terrifying ordeal of facing the demons is the subject of much patristic material, and many of the church’s prayers for the dying also deal with this. In the thought of the New Testament, the abode of demons is not in hell below, but in the air above. Satan is “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), the one whose “spiritual armies of wickedness” occupy “the heavenlies” (Eph. 6:12). This is why, according to St. Athanasius, Christ died lifted up on the cross, dying above the ground, in the open air. “The air is the sphere of the devil…the Lord came to overthrow the devil and to purify the air and to make a way for us up to heaven” (On the Incarnation, ch. 25). To get to God in heaven, one has to run the gauntlet of these demonic armies, fighting one’s way through. The monastic stories of the deaths of some of the desert Fathers relate their final struggle with these demonic foes. The Church’s liturgical tradition builds on this, speaking of the demons as trying to seize the soul as it dies. For example Ps. 22:12-13 refers to “Many bulls surrounding me; they open wide their mouths at me like a ravening and roaring lion”, and the Canon for the Departure of the Soul speaks of the demons as “noetic roaring lions” which “seek to carry me away and bitterly torment me” (Ode 3). If one is a true believer, the angels defend the departing soul, and carry it through the accusations of the demons to safety and blessedness. The souls untouched by grace or which have not finished their course in piety and faith are not able to find their way to safety, but are dragged down to Hades to await their final judgment.
It is in this final progress to God that we find the Church’s teaching on the aerial toll-houses. The image of toll-houses was a poignant one for the ancients, for every traveller experienced the tax and custom officials who waited by the roadside to collect their due. One dreaded these encounters with the toll-house officials. They had a reputation for rudeness, corruption, and extortion, which made them an obvious choice for homilists when they talked about the demons which barred the way of would-be travellers on the road to heaven. As these customs officials grilled the travellers about what they were carrying, so the demons will grill and accuse us of our sins when we begin our road to paradise. This tradition is consistent throughout the Fathers, and can be found as early as Origen (who died 254 A.D.): “When we depart from the world, some beings will be seated at the boundary of this world, as if they were exercising the office of tax collectors, very carefully searching to find something in us that is theirs [i.e. sins]” Homilies on Luke, 23). We will not be able to avoid this searching accusation and inspection of our life. The accusations of the demons will reveal to us just what sort of people we were.
This is valuable, however terrifying the ordeal may prove. For here in this life we do not really know what sort of people we are. We do not hear our voices as they really sound, nor see our actions as they appear to others. We hope that the bad things we hear about ourselves are not true, and that we are simply being misunderstood. But on that day, confronted by demons and accompanied by angels, we will hear the truth and will see ourselves as we actually were. It will have a purifying effect upon us, for we can only receive God’s grace and healing if we acknowledge where we are wounded and what parts of our life need healing. Painful though it may be, we need to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about ourselves. This self-knowledge, coming to us after death and embodied in the metaphor of toll-houses, is essential to our final blessedness and joy.
After death, all souls must meet Christ, as part of their discovery of the way things really are. In this life they might have regarded Jesus as simply a great man, or a wonderful teacher of the Golden Rule. Possibly, like the Muslims, they regarded Him as a mere prophet. Possibly, like the Pharisees, they regarded him as a false prophet and a deceiver. However they may have regarded Jesus in this life, then all will discover who He is really is: the divine Son of God, slain for salvation of men, and sitting at the right hand of God as their only hope. Whether this acknowledgment of Christ’s power brings tears of joy after a life of faith, or tears of grief after a life of unbelief, all must bow down before His throne as see Him as He really is.
Then comes the waiting for the Last Day, when all will be raised from the dead and stand before Christ in their bodies to receive judgment, and truth, and recompense. Some will wait in the land of the dead (Hebrew Sheol; Greek Hades, or “hell”), filled with dread. Some will wait there, in a state of suspense. Some will wait with the saints in the heavenly paradise, drenched in joy and anticipation of an even greater happiness. But during this time of waiting all can be helped by the prayers of the Church. These prayers are very general, for they are offered for all men, both for those dying in fervent piety, and also for those whose faith was more tepid and nominal, and even for those about whose inner lives we know nothing. In examining the prayers of the Church for the departed and her teaching about their state after death, this needs to be kept in mind. The Fathers do not present us with a tidy system, but with a living Lord, and with pressing present obligations. We do not know all would like to know, but we know all we need to know to do what God requires of us. And surely it is best not to know everything? We are too easily distracted from our duties as it is; how much more would we be distracted if we knew all that was to come?
We will all enter that undiscovered country soon enough. Meanwhile, the Church gives us all that we need to prepare for that final journey. We know that after we die, we shall see the demons and the angels as they are, and be faced with our lives and our sins as they really were. We know that we shall see Christ on His throne. Now is the time to prepare for those shattering revelations, and that shattering Presence. Eternity begins today.