As we close the final sermon in this series of sermons that we’ve been discussing the last [six] weeks, about Orthodox life and the sacraments and the different stages of life, from the beginning to the end and to the afterlife. Last week we spoke about the death of a Christian, how we honor those who have left us and the types of traditions that we have that surround Orthodox funeral services and burials and the deep meaning that we attach to the actions that we do. Today on the last Sunday of this series of sermons I wanted to discuss a little bit about the afterlife, because the afterlife is perhaps the most confusing in the teachings of the Church and also it encompasses the most misconceptions in our modern age, because we hear so many things, both in the media, from different traditions, different cultures, different religions, about what happens to us in the afterlife. Many of us, we have these kind of misconceptions. Instead of going back to the Scriptures, which is the source of all the teachings of the Church, and looking at what the Scriptures say about the afterlife and also what the total Tradition of the Church [is], which is always based on the Scriptures, say about the afterlife.
The number one thing that we have to understand is when we go to the New Testament, for example, and we look at what Christ goes through and his own death and resurrection, and we look at all the different events within the New Testament and even the Old Testament, where there is death taking place, we see, even in, for example, St. Lazarus, who died and resurrected after four days by Christ, the only thing that is spoken about, the only thing that gives us hope, is the hope in the resurrection of all things at the end of time, the second coming. So Christ only speaks about our personal death, that all of us need to go through it just like he, too, will go through it, and the hope in the end times, the time when the Son of man will return and judge the whole world.
So this in-between time, all our loved ones who have left us, and where the soul is and what is going on and where is it waiting and what happens between now and the second coming, which we don’t know when it will happen—what happens in this middle stage? It is a very, very difficult thing for us to explain and to discuss, because we simply don’t know 100%. It has not been revealed to us by Christ. It has not been revealed to us in Scripture.
Many Fathers of the Church, over the last 2,000 years, have speculated about it, and there have been different miracles, there have been different visions, visions of different saints, who have helped people, so we know that the saints are active in some way, those who are close to God. We know that God has sent them to help people and to give them different information. We know that different miracles have happened through the saints and those people who have lived a holy life. So we know that there is some type of activity that is happening in the afterlife, even before the final judgment.
But there are many other different opinions and different traditions that exist within the Church, and we’ve heard these before. Some people say that for 40 days, the soul goes through types of toll-houses, spiritual toll-houses, as it ascends towards God, and that the soul is judged by demons and angels, and they weigh our sins and those things that we have done that are good in our lives. So we have those traditions that many people, especially those in the Greek tradition, we have heard many times through our families.
There are other Fathers of the Church that speculate that the soul goes to sleep, that just as the body goes to sleep and will be resurrected on one day, that the soul, too, will sleep and wait for the resurrection. But of course, that doesn’t always jive with the idea that saints are active and working within the tradition of the Church and are still helping us in some way. So we have all these different traditions, but we have to understand that all these small traditions, with a small-t, not holy Tradition, is not official teaching of the Church.
What is the official teaching of the Church for the last 2,000 years? It is that when we pass from this world to the next that, first of all, the most important thing is the state of our souls at the time that we pass. For example, if I in my life have spent my life trying to repent, trying to fight my passions, trying to do what is good, even though I fail, trying to show love to my fellow human beings, to forgive, to try to be connected to the Church and to the sacramental life, then this love and this communion that I have experienced within my life will be the experience of my life afterwards, as I experience the eternal life. I will be moving towards God who is pure love, who is perfect communion. So in the afterlife I will get a foretaste of this eternal love and this eternal communion with God until the second coming happens and the final judgment happens.
Of course, conversely, if I have spent my life at a distance from God, at a distance from my fellow human beings—in anger, in hypocrisy, in judgment, in hate—and this is the state of my soul when I leave this earth, then that apostasy, that distance from God, will continue in the afterlife. The only difference between this life and the next is that after we pass there is no more repentance. There is no chance to change. Whatever we are when we leave this world, that is what we are for eternity. That’s why it’s so important for us as Orthodox Christians to be active in our faith, to pray and to participate within the life of the Church and to forgive one another, because we don’t know when we leave this life, when we will leave, and we have to be prepared at any given time for the state of our souls to always be in a constant state of forgiveness and of repentance and of love.
After death there is no change, but it is rather an eternal reality. This is why it’s extremely important for us to continue to be good people at all times, not to take breaks, not to be Christians on Sundays and for the rest of the week we go back and we do whatever we want, because the rest of the week something might happen to us—God forbid—and we leave this planet with a certain state of our souls that is not necessarily beneficial to us.
This is what we understand from the Church: that our souls will be eternal, going on into the afterlife in an eternal state of whatever state we leave this planet, this world; and also that there will be some type of foretaste of what we will experience after the resurrection of all things and after the final judgment. These are the things, these are the official teachings of the Church. Because we believe that the soul continues by the grace of God until the second coming, this is why we do memorials. This is why we continue to pray. God is going to have the final say, not us.
Our prayers don’t necessarily get somebody out of a bad situation in the afterlife. Some people think that way: If I pray really hard, then I can help somebody in the afterlife. Well, we don’t think like that as Orthodox Christians. Rather, we pray in hope. We always ask God to take care of our loved ones. We always ask God to forgive them. We always ask God to show mercy on them. This is why we continue to pray in our memorials and remember our loved ones every year and on and on and on until our time to leave, and then the Church continues to pray for us, so that we are constantly on the minds of our brothers and sisters in this life.
We are never forgotten, and that is a very beautiful thing, that the Church always remembers those who used to be here but now have moved on to the next life, and we also pray that because they still exist that they continue to pray for us. This is why we pray to the saints, not because the saints are “magical,” but rather that we believe that God will hear everybody’s prayer, including those who are closer to him in the afterlife. So this is the vision of the afterlife that we have as Orthodox Christians, and this is why we do all these things.
This whole Orthodox life that we’ve been discussing the last five weeks is all about preparing ourselves for the afterlife, which is the real life, the most important life, the eternal life, and for the 50 years that we have here or the 70 years that we have here or the, some of us who are lucky, a hundred years here, it is really nothing compared to eternity. So this is the audition, this is the preparation, this is the—I guess you could say—the interview for the eternal life, and we have to decide what type of people we will be in the afterlife. Will we be people of the resurrection? Will we be people of life? Will we be people of forgiveness and of love—or will we not? Amen.