Questions on Orthodox Christianity and the Afterlife

I may already have this down, but I was wondering if someone could tell me if it’s right or not.

I was reading about Orthodox Christianity today and found that it holds a surprisingly distinct teaching about the afterlife. The teaching is that when we die, while we are judged at that moment, we do not go to Heaven until the Second Coming. The exception to this rule is the Theotokos and others who were taken up into Heaven by God in the Bible.

I was wondering if this exception is also extended to saints? What then is the definition of a saint in Orthodox theology? Is it someone who is known to have been judged to go to Heaven, although they won’t get there until the Second Coming?

The Orthodox Church uses the terms, “the Church Militant” and “the Church Victorious,” designating who is on Earth and who isn’t, but what I mentioned above means that its Church Victorious is not similar to the Catholic Church’s Church Triumphant, because the Church Triumphant is already in Heaven… Instead the Church Victorious is similar to the Catholic Church’s Church Suffering. The difference would be that the Church Victorious can be petitioned for help and pray for the living, while the Church Suffering (in Purgatory, which doesn’t exist for the Orthodox) can’t.


My understanding is the saints are in heaven.

That’s new to me. Can anyone here elaborate?

This is not traditional Orthodox teaching. Mark of Ephesus, considered by the Orthodox to be a Pillar of Orthodoxy, wrote this in his second homily against the purgatorial fire: We affirm that neither the righteous have as yet received the fullness of their lot and that blessed condition for which they have prepared themselves here through works, nor have sinners, after death, been led away into the eternal punishment in which they shall be tormented eternally. Rather, both the one and the other must necessarily take place after the Judgment of that last day and the resurrection of all. Now, however, both the one and the other are in places proper to them: the first, in absolute repose and free, are in heaven with the angels and before God Himself, and already as if in Paradise from which Adam fell and often visit us in those temples where they are venerated, and hear those who call on them and pray for them to God, having received from Him this surpassing gift, and through their relics perform miracles and take delight in the vision of God and the illumination sent from Him more perfectly and purely than before, when they were alive; while the second, in their turn, being confined to hell, remain in ‘the lowest pit, in darkness and in the shadow of death’ (Ps 87:7), as David says, and then Job: ‘to the land where the light is darkness’ (Job 10:21-22). And the first remain in every joy and rejoicing, already expecting and only not having in their hands the Kingdom and the unutterable good things promised them; and the second, on the contrary, remain in all confinement and inconsolable suffering, like condemned men awaiting the Judge’s sentence and foreseeing the torments. Neither have the first yet received the inheritance of the Kingdom and those good things ‘which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man’ (1 Cor 2:9); nor have the second part yet been given over to eternal torments nor to burning in the unquenchable fire. And this teaching we have as handed down from our Fathers in antiquity and we can easily present it from the Divine Scriptures themselves.
The idea is that the reposed receive a foretaste after death of either paradise or torment, depending on what they did in life. But judgment has not yet been brought upon them at this point. This is why it is believed that the prayers of the Church might be efficacious in relieving those in torment from receiving eternal fire in the age to come. The major Orthodox objection to purgatory was and continues to be that at Florence, the Latins were teaching that purgation was accomplished through a created purgatorial fire, which the Orthodox do not accept.

I’m sorry, I’m having some difficulty comprehending the text you quoted so I’ll have to ask…

Is this foretaste of paradise/torment just a one time occurrence, or is it a state that lasts until the Last Judgment?

If it is a state, then everyone who dies and is destined for Heaven is in a sort of “sub-Heaven” while the others are in a sort of “sub-Hell”? And praying for the dead is directed at trying to get them out of the “sub-Hell,” if they are there, and into the “sub-Heaven”?

And the saints are the ones who are in the “sub-Heaven” and do not need our prayers, but will pray for us?

No. Those in heaven are in heaven, but they have not received the fullness of the promise of God. Because we need to receive our glorified resurrected bodies for that to be accomplished. So while the souls of the saints are in heaven, their bodies are not, so they are not complete.

The prayers for the dead are for those who are in the pit. Because judgement has yet to happen for them, it is still quite possible that on the last day God will forgive their debts and let them join those in heaven.

So then, as far as saints go, this is the same as Roman Catholic teaching, correct?

Interesting… So the Orthodox Church teaches that no one (not human, anyway) has gone to Hell yet?

Yes. I don’t think heaven is something St. Mark ever disputed with the Catholic Church.

Neither has the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church always teaches that we do not know who is in hell except for Satan.

Well the Catholic Church has not affirmed that there is anyone there except for Satan, but that’s not to say that there for sure isn’t anyone there, as there could be; but it sounds like the Orthodox teaching is definite in saying that there isn’t.

So, praying for the dead is not trying to hurry their path to Heaven, as the Roman Catholic Church teaches, but is instead an attempt to ask forgiveness on the part of souls otherwise doomed to damnation?

And by the “pit,” did you mean Hell or a separate kind of “waiting place”?

We believe in the same afterlife as described in the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Those who die today are in Abraham’s Bosom. Of course Abraham is in heaven after the harrowing of hell on Great and Holy Saturday. And those who die in sin and unworthy of God are where the Rich Man went. And there is this great chasm between them where no one can cross. No one of course except Christ, who is God and can do the impossible.

Hell is hell. It is just not as permanent because we have yet to get the final judgement. Which means we can still petition God relentlessly as in the Parable of the Corrupt Judge.

It depends. Hell has two meanings, depending on whether Hades or Gehenna is meant. Hades is a temporary state of the separation of soul and body, where the souls of the departed await judgment. Gehenna is the state experienced by the resurrected who have been judged for eternal fire. In the sense of Gehenna, “hell” only occurs after the resurrection of the dead. As St. John of Damascus writes:We shall therefore rise again, our souls being once more united with our bodies, now made incorruptible and having put off corruption, and we shall stand beside the awful judgment-seat of Christ: and the devil and his demons and the man that is his, that is the Antichrist and the impious and the sinful, will be given over to everlasting fire: not material fire like our fire, but such fire as God would know. But those who have done good will shine forth as the sun with the angels into life eternal, with our Lord Jesus Christ, ever seeing Him and being in His sight and deriving unceasing joy from Him, praising Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit throughout the limitless ages of ages.

An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 4.27

Thanks Cavaradossi. That makes much more sense than the generalization in the OP.

So Hades is where everyone goes after they die (since we’re talking before the Last Judgment). The righteous will reside in Abraham’s Bosom (the “temporary Heaven”; a pocket of Hades) while the unrighteous reside in the other part of Hades (the “temporary Hell”), but may be advanced into Abraham’s Bosom through our prayers.

After the Last Judgment, those in Abraham’s Bosom will go to Heaven, and the rest will go to Gehenna (Gehenna being the physical and spiritual Hell that no human will see until the Last Judgment).

What was the point of the Harrowing of Hell (by which I’m assuming Hades is meant), then? Did Christ not take those from Abraham’s Bosom into Heaven when He descended into the dead? Does this mean that those who lived righteous lives and died before the coming of Christ get priority to those who die after?

Not really. Heaven and Hell properly speaking are states, not places. The righteous are in the presence of God, experiencing heaven, while the unrighteous, darkened by their transgressions, are in a state of darkness, experiencing what might be described as a foretaste of hell.

We do not have great certainty of that. We assert that those who are already experiencing heaven after death will remain in that state after the resurrection (but will come to experience it fully once they are given resurrected bodies), but for those who are not, we cannot presume to say that they will be damned for certain.

Do the Old Testament Patriarchs have resurrected bodies? If not, then they are still awaiting the resurrection like the rest of the departed. The meaning of the Harrowing of Hades is simply that the gates of Hades were shattered, destroying death. Considering that we still die (that is, we suffer the separation of our souls from our bodies), I think we should be hesitant to ascribe any temporal meaning to the event.

All this terminology is a bit confusing for me. So simplifying it a bit…

When we die, because of Christ’s suffering and death, we go to (the states of) either Heaven or Hell (Hell being darkness/suffering/the place or state for the bad people, and the foretaste of Gehenna), but those in Hell can be prayed out of Hell and into Heaven.

But after the Last Judgment, both Heaven and Hell become more extreme, because we will have our glorified bodies and Hell will become Gehenna.

So it sounds to me like the only real difference is that Catholics belief in Purgatory before Heaven, and praying for souls in Purgatory to speed up the process, while the Orthodox believe in only Heaven and Hell, and praying for the souls in Hell to get them into Heaven.

And therefore saints, both for Catholic and Orthodox, are those who are in Heaven (i.e. the presence of God, due to their being good people).

Well Roman Catholics believe in Purgatory which has fire the same as Hell. An interesting point you have here though is that does being in Purgatory means you are assured of heaven even if no one prays for you?

As for heaven and hell, if you cannot experience heaven fully before the final resurrection then the same with hell.

I like what St. Isaac the Syrian has to say about hell:

“Those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful. That is what the torment of hell is in my opinion: remorse. But love inebriates the souls of the sons of heaven by its delectability.”

  • St. Isaac the Syrian

Well, Purgatory is the process of purifying the soul so that it is prepared to see God, which implies a progression, which can’t be infinite since we are finite beings, meaning that there has to be an end to the progression at some point. In the end, the soul will be pure and able to be in God’s presence. Our prayers for the souls in Purgatory are an effort to “hurry” the process of purification that’s already going on. So once one gets to Purgatory, even if no one prays for them, I think they can be sure that they will one day be in Heaven.

Isn’t that contrary to Church teachings? The dead who are not worthy of heaven get there because of our prayers. Can you point me to such a teaching that says what you pointed out? That souls in purgatory does not need prayers to reach heaven, and that our prayers only speed the process up.

I was under the impression that this was exactly what the Roman Catholic Church teaches, that souls in purgatory are destined in some sense to be in heaven, but are prevented from entering because of their venial sins. Those who die in a state of mortal sin, on the other hand, go straight to hell.

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