Round Table: After Death
Living in a fallen world such as we do, death unfortunately remains a fact of life. We have all experienced the loss of loved ones, all struggled with the spectre of death. But what happens when people die? Do they go to heaven? Hell? Purgatory? Limbo? Furthermore, do all dogs really go to heaven, or is that merely the childhood fantasy relegated to the dumpster of bad theology? This month’s Round Table discussion reflects on the often divisive question of what happens to human beings after their physical deaths. We invite you to consider the responses below and let us know in the comments what you think happens after death.
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Death is a tragedy. The Orthodox Church teaches that the human person is composed of body and soul—the human person is not just the soul and not just the body, but both together. When a person dies, the body and the soul are forcibly separated and, though the human person is not dissolved, he exists in an unnatural state until the body and soul are reunited in the resurrection of the dead. The teaching of the Orthodox Church on what happens at the moment of death, and afterward as we await the resurrection, are not as laid out as our Catholic brothers and sisters (see the council of Florence-Ferarra). At the same time, there is “more to it” than is commonly admitted within the confines of Protestant minimalism.
The Orthodox Church believes firmly in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. But what happens to the person between the time of death and the general resurrection? We do not believe in what is commonly referred to as soul sleep—nor do we believe that death is the end of the journey. There are few dogmas concerning questions of this nature. However, a traditional Orthodox view is often expressed using the witness of the saints. When the body and the soul are separated, the soul begins a journey of its own. The traditional opinion is that the soul wanders for three days, following which it is taken through a series of events, tests, or temptations, it then sees the abode of the saints and the abode of sinners and, on the fortieth day, the soul undergoes a particular judgement—the verdict of which dictates “where” or “in what state” the soul will wait for its reunion with the body and the final judgment.
The Orthodox teaching of the soul after death is sobering. We are encouraged to pray specifically for the departed soul as they begin the next part of their journey. Though controversial (in my opinion, unnecessarily so), Fr. Seraphim Rose notes that the journey on the other side is rife with demonic traps, delusions, and accusations. The human person who is not attached to the world can take flight while the one who is tied to the world is weighed down by his worldliness. But in flight it is attacked by the prince of the air (who was defeated by the King—raised up and crucified in the air). Sobering, too, are Christ’s words to the rich man in Luke, indicating that his life will be demanded of him by demons who will come to collect what is theirs (Luke 12:13-21). In this sense, death can be terrifying. Even so, the common idea of an impersonal presence, a light at the end of the tunnel, one that is reported to demand worship without giving its credentials is reminiscent of a common, American, idea of life after death which may very well be, in fact, Lucifer, the angel of light, looking to be worshiped by unsuspecting persons (see Fr. Seraphim’s research in America and India). But far from being in only Fr. Seraphim, these aspects of what happens exist all throughout the fathers, most recently in Saint Ignaty Brianchoninov.
The (Orthodox) departed soul is commemorated every year in a memorial service, each week in the Eucharist, and on the third, ninth, and fortieth day. The Orthodox funeral service is quite telling—especially put up against the modern, Brave-New-World-Ish funerals of modern Evangelicalism.
Death is a grave matter indeed. And there is much more. But we must remember that the Orthodox Church has been careful in what it dogmatizes. The poetic and symbolic aspect of language give flex to some images and we must not too quickly dismiss them out of strict interpretation. What is clear, however, is that death is something we must remember; that we might be prepared. In the words of Elder Sophrony,
“Grant me to know Thy truth before I depart this life. Maintain my life in this world until I may offer Thee true repentance. Take me not away in the midst of my days but when Thou art pleased to bring my life to an end, forewarn me of my death that I may prepare my soul to come before Thee.”
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Ever since I can remember, I was always confused by Heaven. What is it exactly? I get wings and a halo right? The big Baptist music minister will be singing so loud that his double chin shakes for several seconds after he’s done with the song. I used to think that four verses was too long for a hymn when I was really little. I couldn’t imagine singing in Heaven when we would probably just sing through the hymn book all the time. It actually makes me think of the way that the great Missouri satirist Mark Twain describes heaven in “Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven.” He writes, “Singing hymns and waving palm branches through all eternity is mighty pretty when you hear about it in the pulpit, but it as poor a way to put in valuable time as body could contrive.”1 Heaven starts to sound a bit more like Hell on this view.
On the other hand, I, like any Evangelical kid, knew exactly what hell was. Even though I desperately didn’t want to go there, the stories about it were way more interesting than Heaven. Satan stood laughing out of his mind with his pitch fork stoking the fire that would burn the flesh of the damned for all eternity. It sounded way worse, and in some weird way held more sway over my imagination than Heaven. Heaven was just boring. At least Hell had more color and emotion.
Maybe these conceptions of Heaven and Hell aren’t really what its all about it. Augustine writes in De Doctrina Christiana 1.75, “So in this mortal life we are like travellers away from our Lord if we wish to return to the homeland where we can be happy we must use this world, not enjoy it.”2 This comes within the framework of a larger discussion of what can truly be enjoyed and what should only be used to some other end. I have always had a hard time with this quote about the nature of life on Earth. I love the Earth. I enjoy so much here. So what if I do want to stay for a little while longer? Does that make me a bad Christian? And more to the point, if I envision my “homeland,” which is Heaven if I’m a Christian, like I described above, why would I want to go there anyway?
This leads to my fundamental belief about the afterlife: I don’t know what its going to be like. I don’t know what its going to look like, sound like, taste like, or feel like. For most of my life, I thought this was essential to being a Christian. You had to believe in Heaven and Hell to be a Christian. And it looked like what I described above. But, what I really think Augustine is saying isn’t that we are travelers on the road to the place of ultimate boredom that looks like the Sistine Chapel and sounds like we are in a doctor’s waiting room for all eternity. In the first book of his Confessions, Augustine writes, “our soul is restless till it rests in you.” The real point of Augustine’s whole idea about this journey on Earth and what we should use and enjoy is that in reality, everything good on earth has its true purpose and fullest goodness because God has created it. More to the point, all of these things lead us to contemplate God, who is our soul’s deepest longing. If we truly know the power and presence of God, here on earth, how much more can we imagine of that goodness in Heaven. What we know now is a taste of what is to come. Yet, if we enjoy this world too much, we will put a weight on it that it wasn’t meant to bear. We will ask the world to be the only source of our joy, and it was never created to support that. It was meant to point us on towards our true goal, which is enjoyment in God. So whatever happens in the next life, whatever it looks like is almost inconsequential. If you know the goodness of God and the pleasure of God now, which is only at a distance, how much better will it be in completion? Maybe it doesn’t even matter what will happen in the next life, because now you are living in and using the world the way it was intended. You are not sitting in the chair upside down expecting it to support a weight in a way it was never designed to. You are using the world correctly and so enjoying it all the more, because you know the true source of that deep and abiding peace.Show Sources
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis examines the terrifying truths about the universe. In his concluding remarks on the section, Lewis claims that Christianity provides “unspeakable comfort” to the universe’s terrifying truths. However, as the history of the church reveals, Christianity does not begin in comfort. Rather, as Lewis eloquently describes, it begins in dismay. But, only by going through this dismay does one arrive at comfort. According to Lewis, one subjects himself to this process by pursuing truth. Yet, he concludes that for those who look for comfort, rather than truth, will not get comfort or truth, but rather, “soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.”1 At the heart of Lewis’ examination is the question, what happens to the person after physical death?
Originally given orally in the 1940s, Lewis was addressing WWII Europe—a world that had inhabited war, and thus also distorted notions of death. In a war-torn world, death at the hands of another is interpreted as a means to control and power—a subjective good. In a world that is torn apart by war and injustice, confusion about goodness and what is good is uninhibited. In like manner, when one “likes” a story on their Facebook feed about the killing of ISIS combatants, one could argue that they are making a claim that it is also “good.” Consequently, they are making a statement about what is good, but also what is true. Thus, we have distorted notions of what is true and good. Moreover, in light of being a culture of distorted truth and goodness, we reflect the thesis of Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death. He states, “the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is the mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.”2 However, when we do speak of death we do so through the lenses of tragedy and violence. Needless to say, our dismal truths in the face of terrorist attacks and school shootings do not provide the tools to answer such a terrifying question.
In Genesis, however, God is portrayed as bringing the world into being through an act of sheer generosity. When God saw that what he had created was ‘good’, it is because his generous gift confirms that something other than God is good in itself. Throughout the Judeo-Christian narrative, this is affirmed by God’s commitment to creation. Specifically, God affirms creation’s goodness by giving himself to humanity through Jesus Christ. By obediently offering his love to the Father through death, humanity fully affirms (since the fall of Adam) that God’s generous goodness is the source of its own goodness. This is to say that in our being, humanity and all of creation are intrinsically good because we are a gift from God and exist in relationship to Him. Articulated by Hans Urs von Balthasar, as the “miracle of being”, the doctrine of creation begins and ends in God’s goodness.3 Accordingly, when one succumbs to inevitable death, they ought to be united in the unspeakable comfort and goodness of the Triune God. However, this universalistic understanding of the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is problematic in light of pre-Easter scripture. Therefore, one ought to turn to the death of Jesus Christ and its post-Easter implications to comprehend what happens to the human person after death.
According to von Balthasar, Holy Saturday is when God’s revelation is most fervent. In Mysterium Paschale von Balthasar states, “it is for the sake of this day that the Son became man.”4 In Jesus’ descent into the abyss—beyond purgatory, pre-hell, hell, or any other articulation of eternal judgment—is always further from God than any other person who is forsaken or damned. Articulated by von Balthasar as “universal reconciliation”, Jesus’ descent on Holy Saturday is thus precisely the fullness, the already actual fullness, of God. Therefore, man can conclude existentially (not so much theoretically) that the justice and mercy of God are identical. While the possibility of eternal damnation persists via human freedom, von Balthasar postulates that the Triune God’s all-merciful love will descend on all and through grace, the decision to choose against faith will become infinitely improbable after death. For that reason, “faith in the unboundedness of divine love and grace also justifies hope for the universality of redemption.”5
Writing in 20th century Germany, von Balthasar felt that deep rifts within theology could only be resolved through a more robust theology of the event of Holy Saturday. Accordingly, von Balthasar argues that the ultimate moment of God’s self-emptying is when the Second Person of the Trinity descended into hell for the sake of the damned. Via this kenotic act, von Balthasar argues that hell is not only is a Christological place, but above all a moment in the life of the Trinity.7 This is to say that although, ultimately, the fate of the human person after death remains a mystery, the self-revelation of the Triune God compels one to believe with profound hope that when we pass from this terrifying life we will be overcome with the unspeakable comfort of the goodness that is the Triune God.Show Biography
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Just a couple of weeks ago, someone posed this very question—what happens to people after death?—while I was teaching a Sunday school class on the Apocalypse of John (the book of Revelation). We were reading and talking through Revelation 20:12-13, which reads:
“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.” (ESV)
This, I think, is an entirely appropriate place in scripture to broach questions about what happens to people when they die. Here we are faced with the immanence of divine, final judgement, with the righteous entering God’s Kingdom (the new heavens and new earth of Revelation 21 and 22) while the wicked—those whose names are not found in the Book of Life—are thrown into the lake of fire of the second death. John’s vision as recorded here seems to speak of human beings final status before God Almighty, but is our soul’s final destination the same as what happens to us after we die?
I would argue ‘No.’
Instead, in the vein of scripturally and traditionally informed theological speculation I suggest—following evidence from the Old Testament, Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross, 1 Peter, and the insights of C.S. Lewis—that after death Christians go to ‘Heaven’ and non-Christians go to ‘Hades’ (the place of the dead) to await final judgment, at which time all of humanity will be resurrected from the dead, judged, and sent to their final abodes, the righteous to the New Heavens and New Earth and the wicked to the second death (commonly known as Hell).
Numerous times in the Old Testament, Job, Moses, David, and others indicate where they expect the dead to end up: Sheol. Precisely what this place of the dead entails is never fully explained. However, Jesus seems to provide some insight into how some Jews viewed the realm of the dead in his Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Here we see an image of Sheol as simultaneously a place of comfort (for Lazarus, Abraham’s Bosom) and torment (for the Rich Man). Thus, it seems that before Christ’s death and resurrection, everyone who died went to the place of the dead—Sheol (sometimes referred to by its Greek name, Hades).
However, Christ’s death—and His defeat of Death—fundamentally altered what happens when people die. For those who—like the thief on the cross—profess faith in the Lord Jesus and proclaim the Kingdom of God, after death their souls fellowship with God in Paradise. In common understanding, this is heaven, where the dead in Christ reign with him while awaiting the final consummation of the Kingdom. Conversely, when those who do not follow Christ experience physical death, their souls descend to Hades (Sheol) to await final judgment. What about those people who were already in Sheol before Christ’s death? 1 Peter 3 suggests that Christ’s descent to ‘Hell’ (as the Apostles’ Creed says) led him to preach to those captives in prison and lead some with him to paradise.
In light of God’s desire for the salvation of all humanity, with many Christians throughout history I hope for the salvation of those in Hades, especially those who have never heard the Gospel of the Lord. C.S. Lewis’s portrayal of Hades and its inhabitant’s relationship with the true reality of Heaven as portrayed in The Great Divorce has been highly influential on my thought on this topic. Of course, all of what I have outlined here is fraught with interpretation, eschatological hope, and much prayerful reflection. Do I know what happens to a person after physical death? No, I do not and cannot. But with the Great Church I can “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
Seventh Day Adventist
The Seventh-Day Adventist belief on the soul’s actions after death is characterized by its lack of action. The verse primarily referenced is Genesis 2:7, which states, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” According to this verse, a soul is formed when dust is given God’s breath of life. God doesn’t give man a soul, but rather makes him one. Elihu seconds this motion by stating in Job 33:4 “The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life.” Conversely, when an individual dies – when the breath of life leaves them – they cease to remain a soul and return to dust.
To cite Seventh-Day Adventists Believe (the official compilation of beliefs accepted by its members):
“Though the body returns to dust, the spirit returns to God. Solomon said that at death ‘the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it’ (Eccl. 12:7). This is true of all, both the righteous and the wicked.”
Many have thought that this text gives evidence that the essence of the person continues to live after death. But in the Bible neither the Hebrew nor the Greek term for spirit (ruach and pneuma, respectively) refers to an intelligent entity capable of a conscious existence apart from the body. Rather, these terms refer to the “breath”—the spark of life essential to individual existence, the life principle that animates animals and human beings.
Not surprisingly, the subject of the soul’s post mortem actions is largely tied with topics such as the state of the dead, and the processes of immortality. Seventh-Day Adventists equate death with an unconscious sleep, which Christ referenced when referring to the state of Jarius’s daughter and Lazarus. The “Awakening” from this sleep at Christ’s return is best summarized by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:51-54.
“Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.”