What is death? What do we think happens? How are we to relate to it? What kind of answers would we get from the Holy Scripture?
This is a transcript of a talk given by Fr. Thomas Hopko in Brisbane Australia during October, 1999.
There is no clear dogmatic teaching of our Orthodox Church on death and what happens when we die. There is a lot of interest about death as reflected by the amount of books written about after death experiences, salvation and damnation. Furthermore, there are questions about the soul after death and the intermediate state (i.e. the period between when we die and the world's end).
Christ is coming in glory and because the millennium is coming up, which by the way is the year 2001 with 2000 being the last year of the second millennium, has stirred interest in the 'end time', the 'coming of Christ', and 'the judgment of God on the world' are the interpretations of the time.
There is a lot in discussion going on right now on death, how we understand dying and what we are to say about those who are biologically dead already. There are related questions like praying for people who have departed this life. We Orthodox people just love to have memorial services. We have the Divine Liturgy and nobody is there, but when we have a Memorial Service the church is packed.
I will now make some very simple points, which I think are clearly the teaching of our Orthodox Church, although this may be debatable. I am not giving just my opinion; I am giving my opinion about what I believe the Church is teaching us.
Let us take the interpretation of the Holy Scripture, Church Fathers, Saints and Services of the Church together and ask certain questions, such as:
- What is death?
- How do we understand death?
- What do we think happens?
- How are we to relate to it?
- What kind of answers would we get from the Holy Scripture?
The Holy Scripture is our basic authority of faith and is the witness of what the Christian faith is, and our tradition is an interpretation and understanding of Scripture. Our tradition is a way of understanding the Scripture and has a sense of which even the Scripture itself is a testimony to the tradition of faith or the kanonaspisteos (the rule of faith) that even antedated the writing of Scripture.
Because, certainly there was the Christian faith before the writing of the New Testament Scriptures, which are basically interpretations of the Old Testament Scriptures. By the way, when the New Testament says "the Scriptures" it means what we call the " Old Testament", which includes the Law, Psalms, and the Prophets.
What do Orthodox Christians teach about death and what happens when we die?
It is beyond any doubt that we Christians are convinced that we are created for life; it is not God's will that we die. God doesn't want death; He wants life.
In the Scripture, death is the enemy. The Apostle Paul even calls death, "the last enemy". Death is not natural, not a natural part of our life and not willed by God. The Wisdom of Solomon, which for us is part of the Bible, says very clearly, "God did not create death". Death comes into the world as a rebellion against God. Death comes into the world because people do not choose life, but choose death, darkness, and themselves over God.
St. Athanasios said, "if you choose yourself you are choosing nothing, because that what you are without God", since we are created out of nothing. For God gives our whole life to us, Who is the living God and the only One Who lives.
It is our teaching that death results from human rebellion against God from the beginning and with the help of the demons (who are lovers of death, darkness and evil). The Bible teaches actually teaches kind of a 'package plan', you have God, truth, life and glory, or you have the demons, darkness, death, satan, sin, corruption, ugliness and rot. This is the basic reality, and there is no middle path.
In the eight chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul says, "working in our members is always a heterosnomos (another law)". Human beings think that they are economists, in other words, they are 'a law unto themselves', but according to the Scriptures we are not. Either there is the law (nomos) of Christ, which the Apostle Paul calls the law of the Holy Spirit and Life in his Epistle to the Romans, or there is the law of sin and death.
There is either one law or the other that works, if it isn't the one it is the other. Here we interpret the Genesis story as the choice of death. Furthermore, it is even not strictly Orthodox to think of sin as a corrupted choice or making the wrong choice. I believe that our teaching is that the problem is not whether it is right or wrong but choice itself (as taught by St. Maximos the Confessor), because if you are a creature you have no choice.
If there is God and God is God and God is the living God and God is Who He is, our only choice is to give up our choice and listen to and obey Him. This is very important to understand, because the modern people think that the more choices they have and the more they deliberate the more the freer they are, however this is not Biblical.
What we say is that if there is God, at any given moment the only choice we have is to give up choice and obey Him, listen to Him, trust Him, to love Him and to believe Him. The primordial sin is exactly saying "no, I will not obey, trust or love God. I will do it my way". You know what takes place when you do it your way; you perish and die. That is where death comes from. Where there is obedience, love and trust in God, there can not be death. If one was to obey God totally, live in communion with God, trust and love God in everything, that person will not be able to die.
It is interesting in the Genesis story, God did not say to Adam and Eve, "eat of the tree and I will kill you". He said, "you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil", meaning choice rather than obedience, "for when you eat of it you will surely die", for it is sin that kills you. God doesn't kill anybody, in that sense; we kill ourselves. So the minute we take our life in our own hands to do what we want to do, and do not obey God, basically we commit suicide.
Furthermore, we put that death over to our children who are born in the same condition of death when born into the world. That is what the 'ancestral sin' is all about. A second point is that we would say that the human task is to overcome and destroy death, and to make death to die so that life can then live.
The whole Old Testament, which includes the Law, Psalms and Prophets, is really about teaching people the will of God to reconstruct a rebellious humanity in order that ultimately death can be destroyed. For example, in the Law of Moses you have two very interesting things, one is God says, through Moses, 'I present to you only two ways: the blessing and the curse' (i.e. life or death). Then it says, 'choose life and don't choose death'.
The Law, Psalms and Prophets say Obey God, give up your choice, obey God and you will live. For example, Psalm 118 (119) that is read in our funeral service and on the night of Holy Saturday before Pascha says, "Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord! Blessed are those who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with the whole heart!" Then the Psalm continues "If I keep I Your law, I find life in it and I can not die". That is way it is read over the body of the dead Jesus, because He is the only One who kept the Law of God completely, and therefore could not die.
What we believe is that Jesus Christ our Saviour came into the world in order to die. He is the only One who came in order to die so that He can transform death itself into a victory through His death. He is the only One, the only Person, and the only Human who has ever been born in order to die. He is also the only Human who is the Son of God, Who is divine as the same divinity as the Father, Who is born of a virgin, Who is begotten of the Father, Who comes exactly into the world for one purpose; to destroy the work of the devil and death, and to give us life.
Before the coming of Christ, according to the Bible, everyone is caught by death, no matter how good or bad they were. We can even say to this day that is the truth. Biologically, we are all dead; we are a room of dead people. It is a good idea once in a while to remember that. In fact, many of our monastics would even put a coffin and cross in their room to remember that.
There is an American church story about some southern Protestants who heard about a Roman Catholic monk who used to write "remember death" and that he had a coffin prepared for his death. One of them says to the other, "You know that they used to do that, and sometimes they'd even sleep in that coffin?" Then the other character said, "Yep, they weren't as advanced as we are ". However, the question is who is really advanced?
The problem, however, is that in our time death has been so naturalized nobody will even think of it as an enemy. In much literature it is considered the last stage of life, normal, or you go into some sort of light somewhere, and if you are tired of this life or this world you call some doctor to end your life. However for Biblical Christians, that is absolutely not the teaching.
Let us compare the death of Socrates to the death of Jesus. Socrates the philosophic man, corrupting the youth of Athens because of his teaching of philosophia, says that the real philosopher is the one who can face death. When they finally catch him to put him to death and his friends want to rescue him, he says no. When they bring him the hemlock he drinks it and dies. By the way, the euthanasia society in the state of Massachusetts in the United States is called the Hemlock Society.
Then look at how Jesus dies. He is in the garden and begs His Father to let 'this cup pass' and sweating blood. For Him it is an outrage to die or that any person would die; it is the total victory of the devil. We were created to sing halleluiah to God, not to be corrupted and rot in the tomb.
In the Old Testament, there was a big debate about death. Some thought that death is natural and you just died and went to your fathers. They also believed that God continues to live in the people and the dry bones of Israel (or the people of Israel) are resurrected, but the individual person is lost. These people, at the time of Jesus, were called the Sadducees. The Sadducees, if you read the Bible, did not believe in the spirit, soul or the resurrection of the dead.
However, the Pharisees believed in them all. They interpreted from the Scripture that there will be a resurrection from the dead and the dead will rise. They also believed that when the God Messianic age will come, when God's glory will fill creation, when God's kingdom will finally be established through the Messiah the main thing that will happen is that the graves will be open (beside the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing and the dumb talking…). Then all the dead will rise and God will judge every single person that has lived.
That was the teaching of the pharisaic party and the Apostle Paul. If you read the Book of Acts, every time St. Paul got into trouble for preaching the Resurrection of Jesus, he would create a fight between the Jews. He would say that he was on trial because of the Resurrection, and the Sadducees would start fighting with the Pharisees and he would just stand aside and look on. Jesus, from this perspective, was a Pharisee because He believed in the Resurrection. In fact He said He was the Resurrection and the Life.
In the Old Testament, however, whatever the position was about resurrection everyone was dead. In the Bible, the place of the dead or the condition of being dead was called Sheol in the Hebrew or Hades in the Greek. One problem is that sometimes Sheol or Hades is translated into English as hell, and people speak of God descending into hell, but it should never be called hell, because there is no hell until the end of time.
In the Bible, specifically in the Wisdom of Solomon, it says that if you were a righteous, just person and died, you were still somehow in the hands of God who cares for you. People think that it is a tragedy, but it is not because God is still there. This was kind of a blissful state of death and was called the bosom of Abraham.
So the righteous dead were in the bosom of Abraham, and those who believed in the Resurrection believed that they were blissfully dead until the Messianic King would come to raise the dead and then they would enter into glory. David, Solomon, the Prophets and even John the Baptist was in this state of bliss in the bosom of Abraham. In our Orthodox tradition, John the Baptist is the forerunner of Jesus even into Sheol. As expressed in his troparian, he dies before Jesus to announce that the Son of God is coming into the realm of the dead to smash it open, to raise up everyone from the dead, to usher in the kingdom of God, and to grant us the great mercy of everlasting life with God.
There is also the teaching that this realm of the dead, or Sheol, had what is called the 'pit' where the evil people were. When the Messianic King comes, those in the pit were also raised for just condemnation and judgment. It should be pointed out that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in the Gospel is exactly about this. It has nothing to do with heaven and hell. In the parable is about the rich man in the pit talking to Abraham and not to God. The whole point of the parable is if you do not listen to Moses and the law of the Prophets and really love, choose and obey God you will not be saved even if a poor man rises from the dead. In other words, if you do not love God and do not find life before you die then you will not find it after death, even if Jesus the Son of God comes in order to be crucified and die to descent into Sheol and raise the dead. For us, that is the very center of the Gospel.
The Gospel is that we now have the new, final and last Adam named Jesus. St. Paul says that the first Adam was a 'tipos' of the one Who was to come. Jesus is the real Adam, because He is the One who really obeys God His own Father. He obeys God from all eternity as the Son of God begotten of the Father and became human born of the Virgin Mary to be the Man who literally could not die and to be the Man who was literally, totally and completely dedicated to God, His Father. His word was the word of the Father, His will was the will of the Father, His work was the work of the Father, everything that He did was the Father, and when you saw Him you saw the Father.
Everything that is attributed to God in the Old Testament is now attributed to Jesus, this Man who is a real man but not mere man. He is the Man that the Son of God, Who is the source and author of life, comes down on earth and takes on Himself the sin, the curse, and everything of our human falling's including the last enemy (death itself), in order to destroy death by death.
It is our teaching that that is the only way death can be destroyed, because God desires all people to live, all sin to be forgiven, and that His is loved with all our soul, mind and love. Furthermore, if we were to keep His word and love Him, we would live forever, but nobody does this. We are all non-righteous and we can not save ourselves. The Psalm asks, 'who can bring themselves up from Sheol… who can raise themselves up from the dead?' Even the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, could not keep herself from dying, because everyone is under the curse of death and in the hands of the power of the evil one.
We need to be liberated and saved, but who can save us? God can not just say 'be saved', because if He could He would, but He can't. He has got to destroy death itself, and the only way that death could be destroyed is by life. The only way that darkness can be destroyed is by light. The only way that evil can be destroyed is by good, and the only way that hatred can be destroyed is by love. So you have to have the One who is Love, Truth, Light, Goodness, Beauty, and Perfection who literally has to actualize this in this life. However, if you actualize this in life the way it is you get crucified. If you live completely and totally according to God in this world you can be sure of one thing you will get crucified. Jesus came in order to be crucified.
Jesus is the only One to can in order to die, because He came in order to love, obey and trust God His Father no matter what. And how do you show that you love God? By loving your neighbor and your worst enemy, and by taking their sin and evil upon yourself and even by dying their death for them so that you can liberate them from death, because they have no power over it. That is exactly what Jesus does and that is what our faith is.
So Jesus comes into the world in order to die, and He destroys death by death. In our Orthodox faith, this is the only way this can happen. That is why the center of our Church is "Xristos anesti ek nekron," (Christ has risen from among the dead,) "phanato phanaton patisas…"(by death trampling upon Death…). There isn't any other way; even for God there is no other way. He became human and had become a curse, sin and die and for us, because that is the act of ultimate obedience, trust and love. This is a perfect act of love, which destroys death from the inside and raises up all the dead whether they want it or not. In fact everyone will be raised from the dead, irrespective of his or her wishes, during the Universal Resurrection of the dead, as taught by the Orthodox Church. This is why our Paschal icon shows Jesus even pulling Adam and Eve, with all the righteous and unrighteous from the dead.
If you have ever been to an Orthodox funeral, you heard the fifth chapter of St. John's gospel. It says, "… the hour is coming in which all who are in the grave will hear His voice and come forth - those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation. I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgement is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me". This part of the gospel is extremely important, which says all and everyone will be raised. Not just the good people, but everyone. This Universal Resurrection is our teaching, because death is destroyed.
"What about the dead now that Jesus is raised from the dead?"
Jesus is raised and glorified... He says, 'he who can believe in Me can not die". St. Paul says, 'I gladly die and be with Chris, but if I have to hang around here at least let it be fruitful work'. However, Christ is risen and glorified and is at the right hand of the Father. That is the most repeated sentence of the Old and New Testament, and is found in Psalm 109 (110). The Psalm says, "The Lord said to my Lord, 'Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool"". The last enemy to be put under is death. When death is destroyed everything is subject to Christ, He subjects everything to God the Father and God will be all and in all. This then will be the Messianic age, when the dead will be raised and God with glory will fill all creation. There will then be life for all those who repent and want to be righteous with God and there will be torment for those who do not repent and do not want the righteousness of God.
What about those who are dead, where are they and what are they doing?
We do not know what the dead are doing, and I do not think anybody knows exactly and clearly. However, there are some things that can be said, and I think that what we have to say is for us who believe death is already destroyed in Christ. The last enemy has already been destroyed. Christ is risen and life lives, as the last line of St. John Chrysostom's homily for the Paschal night says. "Christ is risen and the demons shutter, Christ is risen and no one is in the grave. Christ is risen and life reins" (we say in American English). This original word for 'rein' doesn't simply mean 'rein' it means abides and lives. I think, a good translation would be "… Christ is risen and life lives". Life can not be destroyed and that is our faith. We are alive in Christ and our Baptism is a death into Christ.
I said earlier that we are all biologically dead people; like it or not. However, it is also true that those who believe and those who are Baptized and accept their Baptism, and even those who St. Gregory the Theologian says who desire Baptism but may not have heard about it, are already dead in Christ.
Therefore, we are not only biologically dead but also hopefully all of us are already spiritually and mystically dead. We have died with Christ and no longer live in this world. We are fellow citizens with the Saints and we eat and drink at the table of the kingdom. We already have passed through the veil. We are already raised and glorified. We are still in this world, bearing the flesh, but the Holy Spirit has been sealed all over us… Those who have been Baptized have died, raised and sealed with the life creating Spirit. They are literally raised from the dead and can not die, and death becomes the transfiguration or the passage of everlasting life in Christ, because Christ is risen.
This is important, not because we have an immortal soul; our soul is as dead as our body is, as far as the Bible is concerned. We do not teach immortality of the soul in our Church; we are not Socrates or Plato, but we follow the Bible. Death is the enemy of the body and soul, and Christ raises us up in body and soul. It is because Christ is risen that we have hope over death, not because of any 'natural' teaching.
I have a feeling that most Christians generally are pagans when we are alive and Platonists when we die. We function as pagans when life is going well, and we function as pagans when things are going badly (because we want the priest to come and make everything go well). However, when ultimately things do not go well and we die then we turn into Platonists and say, "It is better anyway, because the soul goes to heaven and we are finally with God".
Well let's make up our mind, if the soul is better off going to God anyway why don't we all just go off and kill ourselves? Then why do we keep calling the priest over to pray so a person can be healed or be healthy, and when they die we say "well it is God's will anyway"? Well it is God's will, but the point I am trying to make is that this whole approach is absolutely wrong according to the Scriptures and the Saints.
In this life we don't just live just for God to make us healthy, wealthy and happy, and when we die we say, "well it is better anyway". We do not live this life for clothes, health and wealth. We live this life taking on the Cross of Christ loving God with the love which Jesus Christ and God has loved us (which is the New Commandment) so that we can trample down death ourselves by faith and grace through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit given to us. So we have to live now as dead people and if we do not live as dead people we are not Christians. If we do not live as those who are already dead to this world, we are not Christians.
There is a wonderful story from the desert fathers. One man asks an old man, "What is this Christian perfection we are seeking for?" The old man replied, "Come, I will show you" and took him to a fresh grave in a cemetery and said to the dead man, "Brother, you are the worst pig that ever lived. No one is as rotten as you". Then the old man asked the young one, "What did he do?" The young man said, "Nothing, he is dead". The old man looked again at the same grave and said, "You are the greatest person who ever was. No one is like you. You are the most wonderful, perfect person". He then looked at the young man and asked, "What did he do". The young man again replied, "Nothing, he is dead". The old man then said, "Perfect". He lives only before the face of God. He is not living for what people say whether they flatter, curse or bless him; he lives before the face of God. Therefore, he is free and he already reigns. And if he is with the love which God and Christ loves us, it is impossible to be before the face of God without being a lover of God.
So we are all already dead. It is our teaching that we Christians who die, we die in the hope that we will enter into the glory that Jesus already has at the right hand of the Father and that we will be alive in Him until the end of the ages. However, we also believe that because Christ, the Son of God, has taken on human life and died, everyone who dies is also raised up to be at the right hand of the Father in Christ.
The problem is not everyone likes, wants or believes that. Even when people are convinced that it is true, they don't want it. So we can say in Jesus everyone is raised from the dead, everyone's sins are forgiven, and everyone is saved whether they want it or not, like it or not, or know it. If you want it, like it and know it is paradise and joy in life itself. If you don't, it is hell. Hell and paradise begin when we die.
Paradoxically we say that when a person dies, they already enter into the presence of God by being spiritually raised in Christ. If they love Him, they already experience the end of the ages, the joy of heaven and in the presence of God. If they resist and do not want it, that very same experience is torment. They are tormented by the evils that they cling to, tormented by the devils they serve in place of the living God, and they are tormented by all of the evil spirits instead of the Holy Spirit that are in their life. Furthermore, they are even tormented by the presence of Christ who loves, forgives and invites them into Paradise. Yet they do not want to come still thinking that they belong there. That is how they are not there with the just and righteous. That seems to be the picture that we have from the Holy Scripture.
In this sense it is very important that when we die now, we on early already image that and pray as it will be at the end of the ages. So, we believe that those who are revealed to us as being really holy, really God and Christ loving, and really full of grace are already glorified with Christ and that is why we can pray to them. That is why we can say, pray, be and intercede with us, because Christ Himself is alive making intercessions with God the Father on behave of us, before the end of the ages. So the dead in Christ are also in Him interceding on our behave before the end of the ages. We see it all in terms of the end and not some immortal soul that is out there floating around somewhere and we wonder where.
No, we see it all in terms of the final victory of Christ that is already anticipated by us on earth in the Church by our Baptism and Eucharist. Furthermore, when we die we leave the temporal and spatial conditions of the planet earth and enter the very presence of God anticipating already the age to come. That is why in our Eucharist, when we offer to God that which is His, we say "That which is Yours we offer to You". Then the priest continues remember all that has happened for us, the Cross, the tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and the Second and glorious Coming are remembered in the present tense. And we relate to the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) and all the Saints as at the end of the ages when they are at the glory and ask them to intercede for us as we are offering the Eucharist of Christ's death for them. Since we say, "and first of all we offer this for the most holy, the most glorious lady Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary", because the death of Christ is even for her salvation.
Now having said this, the questions arise: if when we die and enter into this reality, is it too late to repent? Is it all over? Are those who are fixed in their penitent, repentant and unrighteousness totally lost? Do you have to be totally perfect to enter paradise? How does all that work? Here is an issue that has become incredibly debated today. That is he issue of what happens to a person when they die. Sometimes it is put in terms of the soul. But that can be a little misleading, because soul in the Bible means 'their life' or 'person'. It means who they are. It shouldn't be thought of as a discarnate spirit and we are not a combination of a ghost and a corpse, but we are whole people.
When we die, is there a post-mortem repentance? Is there purification after we die? Can we change our mind after our earthly life is over? How do we relate to all of that? Here I think the simplest answer would be that death is the finally test. That is why the quintessential Christian is the marker; you prove your whole life by how you die. Christian life has only one purpose, to trample down death by death through the grace of God. So the transfiguration of death is where everything is proved, and how we die proves everything. Anything that we do up until that moment is prepared for that moment. That is why if we don't die daily we will not be able to transfigure death when the moment comes when we have to go through our passion, crucifixion and death by whatever way that is going to happen. As it is clearly the Orthodox teaching that death is the moment of truth, death therefore also is the final judgement on our life and it is the final chance and opportunity.
Here I think the teaching simplicity put is this, we do not believe in post-mortem conversions or eons of life where you can keep on repenting like Buddhists believe. However, I believe that from the Holy Scripture, the lives of the Saints and the funeral service tell us that in the process of dying and entering into the presence of the risen Christ we have to be purified from everything that is contrary to life, God and truth in that particular activity. It is in the very presence of the fire of God, or the consuming fire of God as put by the Scripture, that will burn out of us in that process of dying, everything that can not enter into life or God's kingdom.
The teaching of the Scripture is that death is a cathartic process even for the most righteous person. Perhaps the only person for whom death was a shear transition was the holy Theotokos, who was so full of God, life, faith and grace that her death is a pure entrance into paradise. All the rest of us are not the Theotokos and we are not pure. There is garbage, sin and rebellion in us even where our desire is for God and our prayer is for God and we want to repent still there is that in us that can not enter into the presence of God or the very heart of the Father (which is everlasting life). This impediment must be burnt away. I believe that our teaching is that this process of dying is this cathartic process where at the end of which you are either with God for ever or away from God forever tormenting yourself with the demons and being tormented by the love of God that is still upon you even though you are an unrepentant sinner. In fact many of the Saints say that the greatest torture of hell are not only the tortures of the evil but the torture of the mercy and love of God that is still upon you (because God loves you not matter what). St. Isaac the Syrian said that there is no greater torment than to be scourged with the scourge of love.
When you die and enter the presence of love and you resist it that becomes a torture to you. St. Mark of Ephesus, a great Church father, refused to sign the council of Florence because of the papacy, the filioque, and because of the Latin teaching on material hellfire. He said that our Church tradition has no teaching on material-hellfire. We have no such teaching; God is not a punisher. Jesus on the Cross was not punished for our sins. Jesus on the Cross loved and trusted God so He can destroy death by death. When I speak with that nuance I say that there is no such thing as punishment. The punishment comes from our own evil and the love of God upon us when we reject it. God is not torturing or punishing us. In our tradition, this teaching about the need to be purified to enter into the kingdom got developed into a kind of allegory called the 'tollbooths'. You can read in some of he Christian literature that you have to go through around 20 or 22 tests in order to make it into the kingdom of God. Then I think some weird teachings developed which are not Orthodox and not according to the Scripture, but like every crazy teaching have a kernel of truth. The crazy teachings are that when you die you have to be punished for the things that you do and go through each of these tool-booths in order to get punished by the demons for that particular sin. So you go through the tollbooth of lust to get punished for your lust, you go through the tollbooth of greed to be punished for your greed, you go through the tollbooth of anger to be punished for anger, and so on until you are punished enough and make it.
In the western church, even before the Reformation, there was a teaching that if you pray for these people you can get some of the punishment off. It was called temporal punishment due to your sin and those were called were called indulgences and then you could actually go to church to light a candle, say a prayer or give some money to get the time off from the punishment. This was called the "purgatorium" (or the "purgatory") connected with the doctrine of punishment and inflicted pain that had to be done away with. This is not our Orthodox teaching.
The Orthodox teaching is that we do have to be tested by every possible demon and be victorious over that demon by the grace of God, the intercessions of the Saints, and anything that we can do to open ourselves in faith to God so that we can be delivered. So the truth of the tollbooth myth or allegory is not that the soul will go through some "astral space" getting tempted by demons and getting punished for sin. The right interpretation is that, as taught by many holy fathers such as Sts John Klimacus and Athanasias, death is the moment of truth and every demon is going to try to get you to apostatise, hate God and try to make you cling to corporeal things. They would like to stop you from letting go of everything so that you can only love God and let God save you. So the tests will see if we hang on to our pride, arrogance and so on. These tests you have to pass through are symbolically represented by the tollbooths; you have to be 'tried'. Then we that the prayer of the Church and the prayer of the Saints do help us to resist the demons and to be faithful and to be faithful and trust God, but this is true at any moment of our life. We pray for one another now, we are prayer for by the Saints now so that we will not succumb to lust, greed, power etc, so that when we die we are ready to float right through and not have to deal with all that at the very end of our life. However, the teaching is this, deal with it we must because we must do the work that Jesus Christ Himself did. Jesus said, "He who believes in Me will do the work that I do". We must conquer the devils like He did. We must resist the temptations like He did. We must destroy death the way that He did. That is what He gives us the power to do through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Sacraments and the life of the Church.
So folks, lets gets started now by being freed from all of this, because at the moment of death it is going to come upon us like a power. But not only at the moment of death, if a person tries to die now before they die all the demons will come to bother them. Evagrus Pontokos said, "If you come to the Church, say your prayers, stand there and say to God 'Lord have mercy, God save me, God be with me, God purify me' all the Panagia Theotokos with all the angels with all the Saints will come and pray with you". Then he said, "So does every demon in hell". To try to get you not to love God and not to trust God, but hang on to your own self, power, greed, money, and what ever it is that your idol. That is going on all the time, but the teaching is that it intensifies at the very moment of death. Therefore, the prayers at the very moment of death are important and we have special prayers for dying people. We have two canons and a funeral service. In our Church it takes 40 days to die.
Some people say, "Well, when you die it is too late and it is certainly too late for us to pray for a person. Why should I pray for my mother and father who have departed this life? They are dead and into the presence of God already. There is nothing that these prayers can do, because it's over for them". Here our Church would say this, "As long as I am alive in this world, it isn't over for me. And I don't know what is going on out there, but if I love my mother and father and even my worst enemy, and I know that they are dying and they are going into the presence of the Lord, and have to pass this incredible test and have to really come to love and have faith in God, then I will pray for them will all my heart and soul. I will pray to my last brief that God's mercy and love would be accepted by them and that they would be saved". But I also have to say this, our Church teaches that God hears our prayers before we even pray them. In fact our Church teaches that God hears our prayers before He even created the world and us. So if I pray today for my father like I did at the Holy Liturgy this morning, when they say remember the departed, I always say John and Anna as my parents and others, like we all do, God heard that even before He created even the whole world. That prayer becomes part of the whole divine providence for my mother and father and others we pray for. Therefore, it isn't too late for God, because God hears our prayers whenever we make them for all eternity, and they have an effect upon the whole of creation. One little prayer changes the entire divine providence. So if I pray now for my parents, I am obviously going to pray for them as being already asleep in the Lord, because they are biologically dead. Although I believe that they are alive in God and sometimes I must say have mercy on them. One in a while I even pray to them and say "mum and dad, please help me today. Because I have to give a talk in Brisbane".
I believe that my parents are with God and I have the right to believe that. And I can risk that in faith and I can even ask for their prayers in the same way I can ask for the prayers of the Bishop. I can also ask a Bishop who has already fallen asleep in the Lord; the Bishop who ordained me. For God, this is for all eternity. So it is not too late, but we pray from our position. If a person is sick, we pray for them as sick and if they have fallen asleep we pray from them as dead… We pray for people from our perspective, but God takes the whole thing into consideration from all eternity and arranges the whole plan on the basis of our prayers, including the prayers we make for people who are dead. Therefore we believe that my prayer for my father not only helps him to enter into the presence of the Lord and to be saved in the age to come, but I believe that it helped him when his father died when he was 12 years old, before I was even born. It helped him get a job in a factory and it helped him to support me being a priest. I believe this, because God is embracing the whole thing. That is why we can have memorial services and pray. It is not that we have one more memorial service and bingo dad gets into heaven. That is not our teaching. God knows what everybody needs and He knows what we are all doing and works together the whole thing, according to love as well as He can. So we are coworkers with God and a big part of that co-work is remembering and holding before God those who are already fallen asleep and have already entered into the life of the age to come. And we relate to them that way in the life of the Church.
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