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It has been widely observed that great interest is being shown today in the life after death. People are intensely occupied with the mystery of death. Naturally this is connected with the so-called existential questions arising in everyone, especially in the young. They are such questions as: What am I, what is the meaning of life, where am I going after I die, is there life after the soul leaves the body, and so forth.
Of course, not only our contemporaries but, in general, people of all times and races have been concerned with these questions. Philosophers are characteristically concerned with the origin of life, the existence of the soul, the entrance of evil into the world, and death. Thus while these topics appear to be contemporary, they have always occupied man's spirit.
If we observe an increasing interest today, it is due more to the insecurity which people are feeling now. For when all the certainties are being demolished and people feel discouraged by various events, it is natural that their interest in existential questions is intensified.
The Church has always confronted such questions, especially the most fundamental problem and the greatest mystery, the mystery of death. Indeed the aim of the incarnation of Christ was to conquer the power of death and the devil. Christ's victory over death gave man the possibility that he too could conquer death within his personal life. This is achieved in the Church.
When the Church speaks of death, it is not in order to frighten the people and create panic, but to help them to overcome it. Obviously the problem of death is not easy to face in any case, nor is death a simple event. We are born corruptible and mortal. At his birth the particular person is born who is going to die. All human life is a succession of deaths. The illnesses and general corruptibility of the body indicate that we are bearing the burden of death. And our various negative reactions go back to the experience of death. So when the Church speaks of these matters it is an effective help. In place of fear and panic it spreads hope and consolation. In this way it gives joy to life.
In this book we shall confront some of the questions which concern people today, such as what is death, what is the soul, what happens when the soul leaves the body, where the soul goes after its separation from the body, whether a man's being dissolves at death, what is the purifying fire, what are Paradise and Hell, what will happen at the Second Coming of Christ, and so on.
I would like to make some general observations in this introduction.
First of all, what is said in this book is inspired by the teaching of divine Revelation as it has been manifested to the saints of each epoch and recorded both in Holy Scripture and in the lives and teachings of the holy Fathers, who themselves are bearers of the divine Revelation.
Then, in developing the separate chapters it was not possible to avoid some repetitions. For example, in dealing with the subject of the purifying fire according to St. Mark Eugenicus, it was necessary to speak of the Kingdom of God, Paradise and Hell. In the chapter "diachronic eschatology”there had to be some repetition from the previous chapters. Moreover we know that theological topics, just as this life itself, cannot be set apart absolutely and interpreted independently, in isolation.
The reader should be told that some parts of the book are more difficult to understand because they give the theological interpretation and analysis of these topics. They cannot all be simplified. When subjects are greatly simplified, they tend to be distorted and degraded. If the reader encounters a few difficulties, let him not be discouraged, but go on to where the reading becomes easier, and he will have a good understanding of the Church's position on the subject of life and death, what happens after the soul leaves the body.
In this book we examine topics which move from the soul's departure to the life after the Second Coming of Christ. This is a difficult "area”because it moves within a mystery. There are many things which we do not know; not everything is easy to interpret. We know only what Christ and the saints have revealed to us. Since I have encountered some difficultes during the writing, the reader must be forbearing.
The Church, which is the risen Body of Christ, is the place where we experience His triumphal victory over death and where we already share, as a foretaste, the Kingdom of God. It is the prayer of all of us that we may live in the Church exactly as Christ wishes, Who is its Head, so that we may attain experiences of eternal life. In that case there will be no need for intellectual analyses and logical understanding of these eschatological topics. We shall be living a diachronic eschatology.
Athens, December 4, 1993,
on the feast of the great
father of the Church
John of Damascus, the
composer of the troparia
of the funeral service.
Archimandrite Hierotheos S. Vlachos
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In the following chapters of this book we explain in detail topics related to life after death, eschatology and eternal life. These topics will be explained in accordance with the teaching of the holy Fathers of the Church, who of course express the orthodox teaching, since they are bearers of divine Revelation. Where necessary, reference will also be made to philosophical positions.
This first chapter offers a general introduction to our subject in the simplest possible way. Therefore the basic views on the subject "life after death”are developed in brief thoughts and simple words in order to give the reader an adequate understanding of the subject, to proceed later to the more industrious reader and his understanding.
We regard Christ's parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus as the most suitable aid for guiding the reader into the subject "life after death". Therefore in what follows we shall analyse this parable in the simplest possible way.
We could make use of many patristic texts that interpret the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus, but we shall not do so, because, as we have said, the aim of all that follows is to introduce the reader to the teaching of the Church on the life after death.
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1. The parable of the rich Man and Lazarus
"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. In hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus in his bosom. So he called to him, `Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire'.
But Abraham replied, `Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us'.
He answered, `Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment'. Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them'.
`No, father Abraham', he said, `but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent'. He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead'".
(Luke 16, 19-31)
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2. Interpretive analysis of the parable
In studying this famous parable of Christ one can observe many things. One can deal with its social dimensions or even draw numerous ethical and moral conclusions. However, we prefer to keep within the subjects relating to life after death. In other words, we shall concern ourselves with the eschatological analysis of the parable.
First. As we see, the parable is not about life after the Second Coming of Christ, but about the life of the soul between a person's death, when his soul leaves his body, and the Second Coming of Christ. This interval is called the intermediate state of souls. Other words spoken by Christ refer to His Second Coming, when He will come to judge men. Before that, bodily resurrection will take place, when the souls will enter their bodies again, and a person can enjoy the things that he did in his lifetime.
Second. It points out that death exists in man's life.
The Rich Man and poor Lazarus died. Death is separation of the soul from the body. This state is also called sleep, because death was overcome by the Resurrection of Christ. Christ overcame death ontologically by His Passion, His Cross and His Resurrection, and He gave man the possibility of transcending it by living in the Church. The fact that death is a sleep, a temporary state, appears from the way in which saints die, for they all have hope in Christ, and it can be seen in their uncorrupted and wonder-working relics.
God did not create death, but death has inserted itself into nature, as a fruit of man's sin and his withdrawal from God. There is death of the body and death of the soul. Death of the soul is the removal of the grace of God from the soul, and death of the body is the separation of the soul from the body.
All people taste the terrible mystery of death, since we all inherit corruptibility and mortality. In other words, we are born to die. Death is the surest, most certain event in our life. Even contemporary existentialist philosophers say that the truest fact is "existence towards death".
Although death is the surest event, the day and hour of death are uncertain. No one knows when he will die. The point is to live right, so that the how of death may be eternal life.
In the text of the parable it says: "The time came when the beggar died...", and "the rich man also died and was buried".
Thus death is the greatest democrat, for it makes no exceptions.
Third. After Lazarus' soul left his body, it was received by the angels and carried to Abraham's bosom. This means that there are angels and, of course, each person's guardian angel as his personal protector, who receive the souls of the just and take them to God.
By contrast, another parable says that the demons receive the souls of unrepentant sinners. The foolish rich man heard a voice from God: "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you; then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (Lk. 12, 20). The verb `demand' suggests the demons, who claim the soul of the sinful person in order to control it forever.
Therefore, at the terrible hour of death, when the soul is forcibly separated from its harmony with the body, dreadful things happen. The angels receive the souls of the saints, and the demons receive the souls of sinners. The teaching of the Fathers of the Church speaks of the `customs houses', which are the demons, the aerial spirits which desire and attempt to rule the souls of all people forever. Of course the souls of the saints, which have been united with Christ and bear the seal of the Holy Spirit, cannot be controlled by the demons.
When the Fathers of the Church speak of the customs houses, they mean both the hatred and aggressive fury of the demons and the existence of the passions, which seek satisfaction but cannot be satisfied because of the non-existence of the body. It is just this condition that suffocates the soul, which feels a terrible anguish. This torment of the soul is like the complete solitary confinement of a person in prison without any possibility of sleeping, eating, meeting anyone, and so forth. Then his passions and his whole being are really infuriated.
The fact that men's souls are received by angels or by demons is relative to their condition. As the Fathers say, angels and souls are noetic spirits in comparison with the material body, but in comparison with God they have something material. So the angels are called ethereal beings, they are not entirely immaterial. Furthermore, the soul is a creature, which means that it is created by God. It is immortal by grace, for immortality is God's gift to it. Every creature has a beginning and an end. Since the soul is created, it has a definite beginning, but it has no end, for God willed it so.
Fourth. While Lazarus' soul went to Abraham's bosom and the Rich Man's soul went to hades, Christ says in the parable that Lazarus went to Abraham's bosom and this particular Rich Man went to hades. Then it says that the Rich Man "saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom".
This is very significant, because it means that in spite of the separation of the soul from the body, the hypostasis, or substance or person, is not lost. Indeed the soul did not exist before the body, but it was created at the same time as the body, and yet neither soul nor body alone constitutes the man. Nevertheless, in spite of the temporary separation of the soul from the body, the man is not lost. This is seen from the fact that the soul maintains consciousness and, as the Fathers explain, a man's soul recognises the elements of his own body which remain in the earth and are probably scattered or broken up into the elements of which they were composed. At the Second Coming, by the grace of God the soul will reunite the elements of his body, the whole man will be formed, and of course then the bodies of both the just and the unjust will be spiritual, that is to say they will not need food, nor will they be limited by distances and other restrictions. Resurrection is a gift granted to all people, just and unjust.
It should be noted that in this parable Christ mentions the name of the poor man but does not know the Rich Man's name. This signifies that because Lazarus lived with God, he was soteriologically a person, a true hypostasis, whereas the Rich Man, although he was a man, had no hypostasis soteriologically. This means that a real man is one who has a soul and a body but also the grace of God in his soul and body. Although a man who does not have the Holy Spirit is ontologically a person, he is not a person in relation to God, for the very simple reason that he has become enslaved to things. Instead of turning to God, his nous turns to matter and is enslaved by it.
Fifth. The parable says that the Rich Man, finding himself in hades, saw Abraham "and Lazarus in his bosom". The person of Abraham is understood as meaning God. To be in the bosom of God means to be in communion with God.
In the bosom, behind the chest, is the heart of man. The heart, which is the source of biological life, is a symbol of love. The greater the love, the greater the knowledge, since knowledge is closely linked with love. Indeed this love constitutes communion and union. Thus for a person to be in the bosom means that he is linked with the loved one, that there is unity between them.
So the expression that Lazarus is in Abraham's bosom points graphically to his communion with God, which is connected with spiritual knowledge and love. When we speak of knowledge of God we mean "communion in being". It is not cerebral knowledge, but the knowledge that is connected with love, with this very life.
Lazarus does not seem to be troubled about the terrible hardship of the Rich Man. He does not see hades, while the Rich Man does see the glory of Paradise. Actually a person who lives in the uncreated Light, in the great vision of God, as our Fathers say, forgets the world. The Light is so great, so dazzling that it does not even allow one to see anything else. This does not mean that the saints do not pray for the whole world. They pray and entreat God, for they do indeed have greater communion with Him. However, they are in a state which we cannot comprehend. Only if we look into the divine experiences of the saints can we grasp it.
Sixth. While Lazarus was in Abraham's bosom, the Rich Man was burning in hades. Indeed he would ask Abraham to send Lazarus to cool his tongue, because, as he expressed himself, "I am tormented in this flame".
Here hades, not Hell, is being referred to. For Hell will begin after the Second Coming of Christ and the future judgement, while the souls of sinners experience hades after their departure from the body. According to the teaching of the holy Fathers, hades is an intelligible place, it is the foretaste of Hell, when a person receives the caustic energy of God.
There was a great discussion about these matters at the Council of Ferrara-Florence, and the views of Mark Eugenicus, which were revealing, have been preserved. The fire in which the Rich Man was burning was not what the Latins called the purifying fire, or `purgatory' that all people's souls pass through. It was not a created fire, but uncreated. That is to say, even sinners receive the rays of divine Light, but since they die unrepentant, without being cured, they experience the burning energy of the Light. Thus, according to the degree of their cure or illness, people receive the same grace either as light or as fire.
It should also be observed that the Rich Man saw Abraham with Lazarus in his bosom. He saw the glory of Abraham, but he had no share in this glory. By contrast, Lazarus both saw it and participated in it. This is a very significant point, for it shows that in that other life everyone will see God, but the righteous will have communion, participation, while the sinners will not. A characteristic example is what Christ said about the coming judgement. All will see the Judge, all will converse with Him, but some will enjoy His glory and others will experience the caustic energy of divine grace.
Seventh. The Rich Man was concerned about his brothers living in the world and asked Abraham to send Lazarus to preach repentance to them. Therefore in spite of the separation of a man's soul from the present world, there is knowledge and social interest.
This fact, along with other elements, shows what we said before, that the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus does not refer to the life after Christ's Second Coming, but to the life up to the Second Coming. Clearly it is about the so-called intermediate state of souls.
The saints are interested in the salvation of the world. By the grace of God they hear our prayers and lift them up to God. That is why we pray to our saints. By the feasts which we have dedicated to their memory we show that they are saints, that they have been united to God, that they await the resurrection of their bodies, which they are already receiving, with their imperishability, the prelude of the age to come. We too are concerned for those who have fallen asleep. We pray to the saints to pray to God for us, we ask for their intercessions, while we pray to God to have mercy on all the others who have fallen asleep. This, apart from being evidence of communication among us, at the same time expresses something else that is deeper.
According to the teaching of the holy Fathers, when a person enters into repentance, the stage of purification, he progresses continually. Perfecting continues both in the `intermediate' stage and in the life after the Second Coming. The stages of the spiritual life are purification, illumination and deification. These are not to be conceived as water-tight states, but as degrees of participation in the grace of God. If a person is struggling to be purified, the grace of God which is purifying him is called purifying energy. When the nous is illuminated, it means that it is receiving the energy of God which illuminates it, and this is called illuminating energy. And when he is in the process of deification, this happens by the grace of God which is called deifying. The process is continuous. Thus those who have repented before their soul's departure from the body, progress and become increasingly receptive to uncreated grace. Therefore we hold memorial services and pray for those who have fallen asleep.
However, since those who did not repent before their soul left the body do not have spiritual vision, they experience only the caustic energy of God and will never participate in the good. But we pray for all, because we do not know their inner spiritual condition.
Eighth. It says in the parable that there was a "great gulf” between hades, where the Rich Man was, and the place where Abraham was, and that it was not possible to pass from one to the other.
Of course this is not a question of particular places, but as we said before, it refers to particular ways of life. There is a clear difference between Paradise and Hell as particular ways of life.
Paradise and Hell do not exist in God's view, but in man's view. God sends His grace to all men, since "He makes His sun rise on the just and the unjust and sends His rain on the evil and the good". If God gives us a command to love all people, even our enemies, He does the same Himself. It is impossible not to love sinners as well. But each person feels God's love differently, according to his spiritual condition.
Light has two properties, illuminating and caustic. If one person has good vision, he benefits from the illuminating property of the sun, the light, and he enjoys the whole creation. But if another person is deprived of his eye, if he is without sight, then he feels the caustic property of light. This will be so in the future life too, as well as in the life of the soul after it leaves the body. God will also love the sinners, but they will be unable to perceive this love as light. They will perceive it as fire, since they will not have a spiritual eye and spiritual vision.
Something similar applies to Holy Communion. All can take part, but for those who are prepared and fit it is light and life, for those who approach unworthily it is judgement and condemnation.
The Church shows this in the iconography of the Second Coming. There we see the saints in the light that comes from the throne of God; and from the same throne springs the river of fire, where the unrepentant sinners are.
Therefore in the Orthodox Church we attach great importance to man's healing. The Church is a spiritual Hospital, a sanatorium that cures the spiritual eye, which is the nous. It is ill and must be cured. This is the whole work of the Church.
Ninth. Abraham, who did not comply with the Rich Man's plea to send Lazarus to earth and exhort his brothers to repent, justified his position by saying that if people do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, "they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead".
A carnal man cannot repent, however many miracles he may see in his life. He lives in a deathly sleep. This is a fact. If man's freedom is not activated, there is no repentance. Everything takes place by the energy of God and the cooperation of man.
The greatest fact in history is the incarnation of Christ, His Resurrection, and the establishment of the Church, which is the Body of the risen incarnate God-man Christ. If a man cannot be inspired by this staggering reality, if he cannot be persuaded by the lives of so many saints who are members of the risen Body of Christ, he will not be persuaded by the greatest miracle.
The salvation and rebirth of a man is not a matter of conjuring actions, but a fruit of the free expression of his will, a fruit of suffering, struggle and much hard work. Unfortunately, many people of our time content themselves with magical, external events. To be convinced of the existence of the other life is a matter of inner spiritual sensitivity. For even if someone should rise from the dead it could be misconstrued as fantasy.
Much is being said today about so-called `after-death' experiences. Some people claim that their soul had left their body or was approaching the way out and then came back to the body. They recount all the terrible things that they saw and faced.
In the Orthodox Church we say that there have been cases in which the soul came back to the body. In other words, they were resurrected by the power of Christ. These, however, are exceptional cases; they do not happen to everyone. There are saints who had terrible experiences, when in their personal lives they knew Hell and Paradise, experienced the flames of hades, saw angels and demons. When they returned to themselves, they lived a life of repentance and preached repentance to others. However, we say that most of these experiences are demonic or are the fruits of repressed experiences, or they are fantasies, or the results of sedative and narcotic drugs given to prevent suffering in the frightful ordeal of their illnesses. There is certainly need for great discernment in order to be able to distinguish these states, whether they come from God, from the devil or from psychological and somatic anomalies.
We in the Church do not wait for resurrections of saints or experiences of such states in order to believe. We have Holy Scripture, the lives of the Prophets, Apostles and saints, we have their words and their teachings, as well as their holy relics, and we believe that there is eternal life. At times each of us is granted by God to experience in his heart what is Hell and what is Paradise.
Beyond these things, we keep Christ's commandments in order to be cured, so that we can solve many existential, interpersonal, social and ecological problems. To abide by God's commandments makes us balanced people.
Tenth. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus suggests the method which we should use in order to be cured and thus, after death and after the Second Coming of Christ, to experience God as light and not as fire. Abraham said to the Rich Man: "they have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them". We should observe the law and obey the Prophets of every epoch.
A Prophet is one who by the grace of God sees the mysteries of the coming age, who already tastes the Kingdom of God. There were such Prophets in both the Old and New Testaments. They themselves received the Revelation, they themselves lived the Kingdom of God, became acquainted with its mysteries and then revealed them to the people.
The Prophets, who are identified with the real theologians and spiritual fathers, renew the people and guide them towards life. Spiritual guidance is connected and identified with man's spiritual rebirth. Actually one cannot be reborn without having been associated with a deified person, a Prophet.
Even in our time there are Prophets who preach repentance, turn our hearts towards God, and recommend another way of thinking and living. Even if we have not been able to meet such a Prophet, there are the words of the Prophets, and by reading them we can learn what the Kingdom of God is and what we should do to attain it.
These general thoughts, which are the basic points in orthodox eschatology, have been formulated here very briefly, in a simple way. The reader can find the detailed analysis of these topics, documented by the teaching of the holy Fathers, in the chapters which follow. With these basic points in view he will also understand what he is going to read.