Two weeks ago, we looked at the issue of sadness and grief and how Christians are called to mourn with hope.
So where does this hope in the face of death come from? It comes from knowing that Christ has already destroyed its power. We have hope because we know that death in this life is not the end of our story.
Before we go on, it’s important to note that when the Church talks about death, we’re dealing with what we call speculative theology. This means that we are speculating about the future based on what we do know about God. For this reason, there is some diversity in the teachings of the Church Fathers on what happens after death. This diversity is okay and understandable, and is the reason why this blog post represents only one such understanding of life after death.
With that said, there are certain things we do know which can give us comfort and clarity as we continue the process of grieving a loved one. So let’s look at three things the Orthodox Church teaches that can help us understand life after death.
1. The soul isn’t more important than the body, and it isn’t eternal by its nature
Discussions about life after death tend to expose a lot of misunderstandings about what the Orthodox Church teaches about the soul. We hear a lot of things about the soul, especially when we are mourning someone who has passed on. For instance, we might hear that the person has gone “back to God,” that the soul is eternal, or that the person’s soul has been freed from their body. These are only partial truths, so I’d like to discuss each of these in a bit more detail.
First, the statement that we are returning to God imagines that our souls existed before our bodies did. Instead, the Church teaches that our soul and body are both created together at conception. We did not exist before that. So at the death of the body, our soul is not returning to heaven, it is meeting God for the first time in the fullest sense. In the early centuries of the Christian Church, there were some who taught the pre-existence of the soul, but the Church refuted this as heresy (non-Christian teaching). This is an important point because it expresses a fundamental truth about who we are: a human person is both body and soul together.
Second, sometimes we hear that the soul is eternal but the body is not. Along with this comes the idea that the soul is freed from the body at death. This over-emphasis on the soul makes the body seem an afterthought at best, and evil at worst. So what does the Church teach? The soul is not eternal by nature (only God is eternal by nature) but the soul can be eternal by God’s grace. God sustains each of us, and He sustains the soul after the death of the body. But to say that the soul is freed from the body assumes that the body is less important than the soul, or that it is the body which causes us to sin. Jesus Christ taught and witnessed to the resurrection of the body. Since we were created – body and soul – at conception, we are only fully ourselves with our body and soul together. This is why death is so tragic and why we confess our hope and belief in the resurrection of the dead during each Divine Liturgy.
If the body is just shed at death and doesn’t matter, then there’s no reason to treat the body with respect. But the body does matter. This is why we do not cremate our loved ones in the Orthodox Church. This is why we venerate the relics of Christians from the past. Just as our soul is sanctified through a relationship with Jesus, so is our body.
So if the body is just as important as the soul, and we believe in the resurrection of the body, what happens to the soul after death?
2. Heaven is just an appetizer
The Christian life is one of gaining clearer and clearer vision of God. As we grow in a relationship with Christ and with the other members of His Body (the Church), we learn to see God in this life (which is essentially what it means to “be the bee”). We begin to experience a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.
Here’s a metaphor I’ve found helpful. When we’re born in this broken world, it’s like being born with bad vision. Without Christ, we cannot see anything clearly. When we become Christians we’re given glasses, but we’re constantly getting the lenses dirty. The sacraments are God working on us to clean our glasses, over and over again. A life of desiring to see God and of allowing Jesus to give us vision prepares us for the day when our vision will be restored. When we die, we’ll finally be able to see God clearly and will have no need for glasses any more. We will either rejoice in finally seeing Him clearly (if that is what we had been seeking after in this life) or our eyes will hurt with the sudden vision of light after being so long in the dark.
Each time we attend the Divine Liturgy, each time that we receive the sacraments of the Church, we get a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. It’s like taste-testing the food before the wedding. We don’t get the whole meal yet, but we certainly get enough to want to come back for more.
So when we die in this life, we will have a vision of God (whether we like it or not) and we will be before the throne of God. Yet, because our souls have not been reunited with our bodies (and thus we’re not fully ourselves), we will not have the fullness of what the Kingdom of God will be. This experience of heaven is itself only like the appetizer of what is next. The best is yet to come!
3. The Kingdom is the main course
At every Divine Liturgy, we confess in the Creed that we “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.” This is the fulfillment of all that God has desired for us: to be with Him body and soul, fully experiencing His presence. He desired more for us than this fallen world. He desired that we live with Him in paradise, and this is what the Kingdom will be.
Scripture is clear that we will receive our bodies when Christ returns. We know that our bodies will be different somehow; Jesus was able to eat after His resurrection, but He could also walk through walls (John 20:26). The Kingdom will be a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1) which is to say that everything will be transfigured, and perfected. This is necessarily a physical kingdom because we will have our bodies resurrected. This is pretty different from the world’s image of an ephemeral, puffy-cloud filled spirit world with little baby angels playing harps, isn’t it?
The Kingdom of God is about this world, renewed and transfigured, free of death and suffering.
Until the Kingdom is established, all who have died will experience Christ’s presence (either as heaven or as torment) but they too will await the Kingdom. So when we discuss the Orthodox understanding of life after death, we have to remember that it isn’t just this life and then the next. We await the Kingdom of God!
In this life, Orthodox Christians have the blessing to experience a taste of the Kingdom of God, and we can take comfort knowing that our departed loved ones have already started on the first course. But one day, we will all be together before the Lord in His Kingdom, forever experiencing the banquet that He has prepared for all of us that love Him (Matthew 22:1-14, Matthew 25:1-13, Revelation 19:9).
At the end of the day, it’s less important that we know exactly what heaven and the Kingdom of God will be like than that we trust in Jesus Christ today. Our mission is to desire to know Him today, to strive to be with Him, to have faith in Him, and to pursue His will over our own. Our Church teaching on the nature of the soul and what happens to us after this life are only meant to direct our attention more and more to know Jesus.
How has the world impacted how you view life after death? Does it change anything for you knowing that the body and the soul are both important? How does this direct you to have a relationship with Christ, today?
Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.
Body and Soul
Live through glasses
The Church of the Protection of the Mother of God at Yasenevo