On Purgatory and the Afterlife

Bishop Auxentios of Photiki

When the body and soul are separated, according to Roman Catholic teaching, the soul experiences a Particular Judgment at death. Those with mortal sins and who are unrepentant go to Hell, while saints go directly to Heaven. Unbaptized babies enter into Limbo, and the souls of those who die with sins on their souls, but who are repentant, go to Purgatory, where their stay can be shortened by the prayers of the faithful on earth. Those in Purgatory, however, are guaranteed salvation after the cleansing of the purgatorial fires. At the Great Judgment, after the return of Christ to earth, those in Purgatory will be released, if they have not already been, and the sinners in Hell and saints in Heaven will be confirmed in the decisions rendered about them at the Particular Judgment at the time of death. While these views have been modified by the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council, they nonetheless represent traditional Roman Catholic teaching and the doctrines which underlie the Second Council’s reforms.

According to Orthodox teaching, there is also a Particular Judgment after death, based, like Latin doctrine, on St. Paul’s statement that a man dies once and is then judged (Heb. 9:27). When Christ teaches that those who heed His words will not come into judgment, He establishes the Orthodox belief that saints go straight into Paradise (Jn. 5:24). St. Maximos the Confessor says that those who have perfect love of God are caught in the clouds at death are not brought to judgment.  The judgment of the imperfect – a calling into account for their sins – sometimes begins, however, when the demons and angles come to question them. St. John Klimakos, in the seventh step of his Ladder, recounts the experiences of a man who was being questioned about his life by unseen spirits while still on his deathbed. St. Gregory the Dialogist, an Orthodox Bishop of Rome living before the separation of the Roman Catholic Church from the Orthodox Church, also provides many accounts of such testing, which are contained in the first volume of the Evergetinos, a collection of spiritual writings also edited in the eighteenth century by St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite. Thus the soul of a sinner who has lived a careless life, according to these Orthodox teachings, is taken to punishment, after being tested by the demons, while the person who, despite his sins, lived in repentant humility is allowed to pass, after his testing, into a state of bliss, escorted thereto by angels.

Between the Particular Judgment and the Great Judgment, at Christ’s Second Coming, the righteous and the evil experience a foretaste of the suffering or joy that they will experience after the Great Judgment. They remain feeling, conscious entities, having memories and even – most especially in the case of the righteous – recognizing one another. As the great Abba Dorotheos writes, “…the soul [in this state] forgets nothing that it did in the world.” In this Middle State, moreover, those who are condemned and those who are saved can benefit from the prayers of the living. For, as St. Makarios the Great writes in one of his homilies, “There are many levels and differences and measures, both in the kingdom [in Heaven] and in Hell.” Souls in the Middle State are, as it were, at one of the many levels of punishment and spiritual reward that exist in Heaven and in Hell. And by the prayers and almsgiving of the faithful on earth, since the Particular Judgment is not a final judgment, these souls can improve their lot. St. Nectarios, a contemporary Church Father, in an essay on the immortality of the soul and the benefit of memorial services, published in Athens in 1901, tells us that one can be delivered even from the sufferings of Hell by the prayers of the Church.

We must emphasize here that the prayers and acts of charity of the faithful on earth, not the cleansing of a purgatorial fire, benefit the dead, according to Orthodox teaching. This is because the unity of the Church extends to the realm beyond and because the efficacy of prayer does not end with death. Those in Middle State may still come to salvation or may better their eternal lot through the love of the praying Christian Church. It is the confusion of this possibility of spiritual growth in the Middle State, which expresses the great power of love and Christian compassion beyond the grave that leads some observers wrongly to think that the Orthodox Church believes in Purgatory. It does not, in fact, accept the idea that souls must be cleansed by the fire of Purgatory and that this cleansing can be facilitated by indulgences (payments of money) from the body of believers on earth, as did the medieval Latin Church.

Nor does it believe that those in the Middle State are assured of salvation. The Middle State is inhabited both by those who will be saved and by those who will be damned at the Final Judgment. It is wholly unrelated to the idea of Purgatory and a cleansing fire that prepares the soul for Paradise, and idea which suggests that God bestows bliss on those whom He first burns and punishes – something repugnant to Orthodox, who call God a “man-loving God”. In the Middle State, there is an opportunity for spiritual growth in an upward direction, in recognition both of the love of God and the efficacy of the loving prayers of the living for those who are dead.

At the General Resurrection, at Christ’s Second Coming, when the bodies of the dead will be raised, made spiritual, and joined to the soul, then Christ will assign each soul either to Heaven or Hell. Those with a foretaste of Heaven will know its blessedness more greatly, while those with a foretaste of Hell will know its torments more fully. At the same time, through the prayers of the Church, some of those in the Middle State may be lifted up and advanced to a higher and more positive state – even from damnation to salvation. For them, the General Resurrection may entail a change in their eternal plight. In this way, the Church on earth and the souls of those in the so-called Middle State are joined together in prayer and love and in a common effort for the salvation of all mankind, which is what God wishes.

It is important to note that Roman Catholic doctrines about life after death and Purgatory are based on theological theory, as demonstrated by the fact that the Second Vatican Council could modify such theory and put forth a revised notion of life after death and the cleansing effects of Purgatorial fire. It is true that some Roman Catholic ideas about life after death are derived from the teachings of the Orthodox Church (ideas gleaned from Orthodoxy before the Latin Church’s separation from the Mother Church of Christianity); but whereas the Orthodox teaching on the afterlife is drawn from Scriptural exegesis, the Patristic witness, and the living experiences which underlie these two sources of authority, the Latin Church has dealt with these living witnesses in a dead way, as theories, in formulating her doctrine.

There is nothing theoretical in the Orthodox view. There is no attempt to make the mystery of death conform to a systematic model. For the afterlife has its own dimensions of reality and its own working principles: eternal principles that remain largely unknowable to the minds of men and women limited by the confines of time and space. The teachings of the Orthodox Church on this subject are nothing less than codified experience and a statement of the nature of the afterlife as it has been revealed to the Church. The subject is not open to debate, since what is empirical is clearly before us and is devoid of the hypothetical. Moreover, the Orthodox view of Purgatory and the afterlife is not subject to revision or change. Should a Church council, citing theoretical reasons for revising Orthodox teachings, restate our beliefs, as the Second Vatican Council did those of the Latin Church, then that council would earn itself the title of a false council, of a heretical gathering. The true spiritual experience of the Church is not chaotic or speculative, and it is thus not subject to theoretical readjustments. It can be but confirmed and protected.(A Patristic Reader: “Latin Purgatory and the Orthodox View of the Afterlife” by Bishop Auxentios pg. 83-90)