St. Macarius on the Soul After Death

St. Macarius the Great ca. 300-391
When the soul of a man departs from the body, a certain great mystery is there enacted. If a person is under the guilt of sin, bands of demons and fallen angels approach along with the powers of darkness which capture the soul and drag it as a captive to their place. No one should be suprised by this fact. For if, while a man lived in this life, he was subject to them and was their obedient slave, how much more, when he leaves this world, is he captured and controlled by them? (The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, Homily 22) 
Like the tax collectors who sit along the narrow streets and snatch at passers-by and extort from them, so also the demons watch carefully and grab hold of souls. And when they pass out of the body, if they are not completely purified, they are not permitted to go up into the mansions of Heaven there to meet their Master. For they are driven down by the demons of the air. But if, while they still live in the flesh, they shall, because of their hard toil and much struggle, obtain from the Lord on high grace, they, along with those who through virtuous living are at rest, shall go to the Lord, as He promised. “Where I am, there also shall My servant be.” (Jn. 12:26) (ibid., Homily 43)


  1. How is this teaching not salvation by works? The way it sounds, you have to work really hard to attain God’s grace instead of it being a gift. I understand that we must work out our salvation and endure to the end, but I have always understood this to be the theosis journey that all Christians must make.

    I do have one more question. Where do the demons take the evil souls? What does it mean for a soul to not be completely purified?

  2. Hello Toby,

    Salvation is by the works of Christ. St. Macarius speaks of this over and over. This particular passage may sound like “salvation by works” but no more than if one was to take parts of the Divine Scriptures themselves:

    Mat 7:21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
    Rom 2:6-7 He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life…
    Rom 2:13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
    Jas 2:21-22 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works…
    Rev 22:12 And, behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to each as his work is.

    St. Macarius is simply speaking of synergy. Great article:

    The demons take the souls to hades. They do by this by the authority which man gives them when he sins and also by the corrupt rapport we develop them by deeds of darkness: 1 Jon. 3:8 Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil… St. John Maximovitch also says something similar to this:
    “[W]hen it leaves the body, the soul finds itself among other spirits, good and bad. Usually it inclines toward those which are more akin to it in spirit, and if while in the body it was under the influence of certain ones, it will remain in dependence upon them when it leaves the body, however unpleasant they may turn out to be upon encountering them.” (Life After Death: A Homily by St. John the Wonderworker) Source:

    The soul is purified by faith, repentance, observing the commandments, a contrite heart, life in the Church, the Mysteries, tears, fastings, ascesis, etc.
    The Scriptures explicitly speak of being justified by faith (Rom. 5:1), words (Mat. 12:37), works (Jas. 2:24) and contrition (Lk. 18:14). Since you made reference to theosis I will conclude with the words of Apostle Peter. He touches upon most of your questions:

    2 Pet. 1:3-9 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, MAKE EVERY EFFORT to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.

    Thank you for always checking us out my brother.

  3. Does Hades still exist even after Jesus defeated it? Forgive me if my questions seem elementary, but in a sense I am just learning all this for the first time.

  4. No problem brother, just please bear with my long-winded answers. I like to cover all the bases.

    Yes Hades does still exist but the light of God shines there in a unique and new way since He entered Death and smashed its gates as a man. Death/Sin had man in an inescapable iron clad grip but Christ has delivered us from this. We are not enslaved to it anymore:

    Job 38:17 LXX And do the gates of death open to you out of fear; and did the porters of hades quake when they saw you?
    Heb 2:14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil…
    1 Jn. 3:8 The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.
    Rev. 1:17 Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.

    St. Gregory of Nyssa:…[T]hus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active.(The Great Catechism 24)

    With all that said, there is already/not yet element to all this: 1Co 15:26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. Therefore, Death is destroyed, being destroyed and will be destroyed by the Universal Resurrection. Sadly, some people still seek a covenant with it: Isa 28:15 LXX Because you have said, We have made a covenant with Hades, and agreements with Death; if the rushing storm should pass, it shall not come upon us; we have made falsehood our hope, and by falsehood shall we be protected.

    The Resurrection makes those who seek death and sin a futile endeavor. St. Justin Popvich: People condemned God to death; with His Resurrection He condemned them to immortality…With the Resurrection of the God-Man, the nature of man is irreversibly led toward the road of immortality and man’s nature becomes destructive to death itself. For until the Resurrection of Christ, death was destructive for man; from the Resurrection of Christ, man’s nature becomes destructive in death.” (Condemned to Immortality: A Reflection on the Resurrection)

    Remember what we discussed on the Hippolytus thread (re-read our comments: and be mindful that Hades is on borrowed time because Death/Hades itself will be thrown into Gehenna: Rev 20:14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

    That is the completion of the destruction of Hades.

    St. Aphrahat the Persian Sage explained this dynamic process in the manner of Death being poisoned little by little by immortality until it is completely destoyed in the Resurrection:

    And when Jesus, the slayer of Death, came, and clothed Himself in a Body from the seed of Adam, and was crucified in His Body, and tasted death; and when (Death) perceived thereby that He had come down unto him, he was shaken from his place and was agitated when he saw Jesus; and he closed his gates and was not willing to receive Him. Then He burst his gates, and entered into him, and began to despoil all his possessions. But when the dead saw light in the darkness, they lifted up their heads from the bondage of death, and looked forth, and saw the splendour of the King Messiah. Then the powers of the darkness of Death sat in mourning, for he was degraded from his authority. Death tasted the medicine that was deadly to him, and his hands dropped down, and he learned that the dead shall live and escape from his sway. And when He had afflicted Death by the despoiling of his possessions, he wailed and cried aloud in bitterness and said, “Go forth from my realm and enter it not. Who then is this that comes in alive into my realm?” And while Death was crying out in terror (for he saw that his darkness was beginning to be done away, and some of the righteous who were sleeping arose to ascend with Him), then He made known to him that when He shall come in the fullness of time, He will bring forth all the prisoners from his power, and they shall go forth to see the light. Then when Jesus had fulfilled His ministry among the dead, Death sent Him forth from his realm, and suffered Him not to remain there. And to devour Him like all the dead, he counted it not pleasure. He had no power over the Holy One, nor was He given over to corruption.

    And when he had eagerly sent Him forth and He had come forth from his realm, He left with him, as a poison, the promise of life; that little by little his power should be done away. Even as when a man has taken a poison in the food which is given for (the support of) life, when he perceives in himself that he has received poison in the food, then he casts up again from his belly the food in which poison was mingled; but the drug leaves its power in his limbs, so that little by little the structure of his body is dissolved and corrupted. So Jesus dead was the bringer to nought of Death; for through Him life is made to reign, and through Him Death is abolished, to whom it is said:— O Death, where is your victory? 1 Corinthians 15:55 (Demonstrations 22:4-5)

    Sorry so long but I can’t give a short answer to such a complex issue. Hope this helps!

  5. I have heard stories from youth, of a wicked man who on his death bed cried out in terror as he described evil spirits coming to take him away. I have no idea if this was any more than an urban myth, but could it describe what happens to the wicked at death according to St. Macarius? On the other side, would the Christian see angels come to take him/her to heaven?

  6. I don’t think that’s a myth.
    St. Hippolytus of Rome: [T]he unrighteous are dragged toward the left by angels who are ministers of punishment, and they go of their own accord no longer, but are dragged by force as
    prisoners. And the angels appointed over them send them along, reproaching them and threatening them with an eye of terror, forcing them down into the lower parts. (Against Plato, On the Cause of the Universe)

    That is exactly the case with angels according to the Lord: Luk 16:22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. There are also stories of dying saints being met by the souls of the righteous dead like Abba Sisoes and St. John Chrysostom.

    If you go to our “post-mortem” section you can find that angels and saints escort the blessed (and demons the wicked) in many of the visions of saints from east to west.

    Here is Chrysostom’s take on the subject:
    “Mark also: in one passage it is said that the soul is carried away by angels; in the other, that “they require it;” and in the latter case they lead it away as a prisoner; in the former, they guard and conduct it as a crowned victor. And like as in the arena a combatant, having received many wounds, is drenched with blood; his head being then encircled with a crown, those who stand ready by the spot take him up, and with great applause and praise they bear him home amid shouting and admiration. In this way the angels on that occasion led Lazarus also away. But in the other instance dreadful powers, probably sent for that purpose, required the soul. For it is not of its own accord that the soul departs this life; indeed, it is not able. For if when we travel from one city to another we need guides, much more does the soul stand in want of those who can conduct it, when it is separated from the flesh, and is entering upon the future state of existence.” (Four Discourses, Chiefly on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man)

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