Many people know that the Orthodox do not believe in Purgatory, but they do not know precisely what their afterlife-paradigm is. Orthodoxy teaches that both Heaven and Hell are experiences of God’s grace, because the reward of Heaven and the punishment of Hell are identical. The afterlife is essentially an experience of God’s energy which only differs upon how the soul responds to God.
To understand this, we must build upon the foundation of how the East and West differs upon the idea of merit. Then we will proceed to what role merit plays in the afterlife.
Why the Orthodox View of Merit Disallows For Purgatory. Orthodox theology does not view Christ’s atoning work in the cross as somehow incomplete in its application to the believer. Christ provides us with infinite merit and only our willingness to, by the grace of God, experience His grace acts as a mitigating factor against enjoying His atoning work. Unlike the Roman Catholic view which explicitly teaches that our sufferings in Purgatory pay God back for injustice done in our earthly lives (what Roman Catholics call “the temporal effects of sin” which require atonement and the applying of merits of others through prayers), the Orthodox view of merit does not allow for this.
Our merits actually belong to Christ and they are ours by a faith that works in love (i.e. includes works). These merits are in a sense transformative, we do not acquire as assets but they are essentially synonymous with our sanctification. We do not need to attain to more merits per se to avoid damnation, rather, we need to avoid turning away from Christ by “backsliding” or even forfeiting our own Theosis. We need to continue on our path, or ladder, to salvation.
Because Orthodox Catholicism, like Roman Catholicism, teaches there is no repentance after death, there is no more opportunity to change how one lives–give alms, partake in sacraments, etcetera and thereby tap into Christ’s infinite merit–after death. Hence, man cannot do anything to have his own sins atoned for after death. This explicitly contradicts the Roman Catholic view, which in part allows for one’s own suffering to pay God back for injustice done.
The State of the Soul After Death. Saint Augustine is consistent with Orthodox thought when he speculated about the possibility that there are men who die in a stage of incomplete sanctification. This is because Orthodox Christianity teaches that everyone including the Theotokos has incomplete sanctification! The saved are experiencing an eternity of being sanctified by God, ever more in holiness, a process that never can be exhausted due to God’s infinite greatness.
Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos wrote in Life After Death:
[T]he memorial services and prayers of the Church also benefit the righteous and those who have lived a saintly life. This is a central teaching of our Church. St. Mark [of Ephesus] affirms that the prayers of the Divine Liturgy show that ‘the power of these prayers and especially of the mystical sacrifice goes through to those enjoying blessedness from God.’ This appears in the prayer in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: ‘Also we offer to thee this reasonable worship on behalf of those forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and every righteous person who has died in faith [, especially for our most holy, most pure, most blessed, glorious Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary].’…So, the prayers of the Church reach all, both sinners and the righteous, but they work differently, according to the spiritual condition which each had reached in this life…A man’s perfecting is incomplete. Man is always susceptible of improvement in his spiritual condition. This movement will continue in the age to come. Therefore, when through repentance a person enters the stage of purification but because of death cannot complete the purification and reach illumination, this can be done through the prayers of the Church. That is, there will be an endless increase in participation in the purifying, illuminating, and divinising energy of God (Pg. 187-189 in First Edition translated by Esther Williams).
Now, the above obviously cannot be taken to mean that those who are canonized saints are suffering after death–far from it. Rather, Orthodox believe that the afterlife is a spectrum between sublime enjoyment of God and the supreme torture of His presence. Our state of sanctification essentially decides where we fall on this spectrum. The saints enjoy God and will increasingly enjoy Him. Those who have not repented experience sufferings, liable to have these increase apart from the prayers of the Church. Those who faithless are eternally damned as they cannot change their way of thinking.
At first, this sounds profoundly unbiblical and a modern-era innovation. Permit us to make the Biblical, and then traditional, case for this doctrine.
The Orthodox Doctrine on the Afterlife in the Scriptures. The basis for the Orthodox doctrine is the Scriptural teaching that “God is Light and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). He “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:16) and the exposure to the Light is experienced differently by men, depending on their level of sanctification in this life (John 3:19-21). As we can see in the icon at the top of the article, the light is terrifying to the apostles but not to Elijah and Moses. Imagine how this plays out for eternity.
The damned’s experience of God’s light is not like Moses’, whose face was radiant, but rather something perceived as terrifying (Ex 20:19, 33:20). Being that Heaven is dwelling with God (Rev 21:3) where we see His face (Rev 22:4) and He is the only form of light (Rev 21:23), to those who hate God this will be eternal torture. Saint Peter seems to take this for granted when he warns in Acts 3:19, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the face of the Lord.”
The Scriptures explicitly state that the damned suffer in God’s presence (Rev 14:10) and that they “will suffer eternal punishment from the face of the Lord” (2 Thes 1:9, Saint Jerome’s translation of the passage into Latin verifies the fathers understood the literal rendering of the Greek as correct). Because the Light of God’s face is terrifying, the damned are said to hide themselves “from the glory of His majesty” (Is 2:21) and that they will call “to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us, and hide us from the face of Him that sits on the throne'” (Rev 6:16).
As we can see in the preceding, the Scriptural basis for the Orthodox doctrine is abundantly clear. Heaven and Hell are uncreated realities, because God’s face is what lays behind both of them. Because God’s face is uncreated, then Heaven and Hell are likewise the same. The Western idea, that Heaven is a created reward and Hell is a created punishment is entirely missing from the Scriptures. It is simply a Western presupposition. The question is whether this is simply another blogger giving a private interpretation of the Scriptures or whether the view put forward here has been elucidated by the fathers of the Church.
The Orthodox Doctrine on the Afterlife in Church History. Most of the early church fathers did not make explicit comments about the afterlife other than reiterating the literal descriptions of fire and worms that we find in the Scriptures. What is not always clear is whether they believed that there were literal fires and worms. Surely some did. Saint Irenaeus and Papias appeared to believe that there would be literal food in heaven. Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, credits Papias with beginning this undercurrent of thought amongst some of the earlier fathers:
To these [Papias’ books] belong his statement that there will be a period of some thousand years after the resurrection of the dead, and that the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this very earth. I suppose he got these ideas through a misunderstanding of the apostolic accounts, not perceiving that the things said by them were spoken mystically in figures.
For he appears to have been of very limited understanding, as one can see from his discourses. But it was due to him that so many of the Church Fathers after him adopted a like opinion, urging in their own support the antiquity of the man; as for instance Irenæus and any one else that may have proclaimed similar views (Book 3, Chapter 39, Par. 12-13).
A belief that Heaven has “a material form” with created things as rewards is contrary to the view that God is the reward in Heaven and He is uncreated. And, if the Heavenly reward in immaterial and uncreated, then it stands to reason that so are the punishments of Hell. Other, later, church fathers recognized this. For example, Saint Chrysostom in his comments on 2 Thes 1:9 exhibited a belief that the Heavenly reward is the same as the punishment for the damned: “‘From the face of the Lord,’ he [Paul] says. What is this?…His coming only to some indeed will be Light, but to others vengeance.”
Other, Orthodox fathers elaborated upon the thought we find in Chrysostom’s observation:
When the holy and heavenly fire comes to dwell in the souls of the former, as says one of those who have received the title of Theologian*, it burns them because they still lack purification, whereas it enlightens the latter according to the degree of their perfection. For one and the same fire is called both the fire which consumes and the light which illuminates (Saint John of the Ladder, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 28, Par 51).
It is totally false to think that the sinners in Hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is a child of the knowledge of truth, and is unquestionably given commonly to all. But love’s power acts in two ways: it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it (Saint Isaac the Syrian, Homily 84).
God is fire…this flame at first purifies us from the pollution of passions and then it becomes in us food and drink and light and joy, and renders us light ourselves because we participate in His light (Saint Symeon the New Theologian, Discourse 78.)
Saint Mark of Ephesus commented that “fire shows the saints brighter, like gold tried in the furnace, since they bring no evil deed and mark,” (Life After Death, p. 188) and “eternal fire and unceasing punishment…is light for those worthy of vision of it” (Ibid., p. 191-192).
*This is a reference to St. Gregory Nanzianzus, who in Oration 40, Par. 36 conceptually parallels St. John of the Ladder but seemingly does not equate the “heavenly fire” with the illumining light:
And now he asks that the Light and the Truth may be sent forth for him, now giving thanks that he has a share in it, in that the Light of God is marked upon him; that is, that the signs of the illumination given are impressed upon him and recognized. One light alone let us shun — that which is the offspring of the baleful fire…He Himself is anagogically called a Fire. This Fire takes away whatsoever is material and of evil habit…He gives us even coals of fire to help us. I know also a fire which is not cleansing, but avenging…which He pours down on all sinners, mingled with brimstone and storms, or that which is prepared for the Devil and his Angels.
While Gregory Nanzianzus’ quote shows that there was not an early consensus on the interpretation of Heaven and Hell that is most popular among Orthodoxy today, it is clear that what Orthodoxy does teach is ancient.
Conclusion. If we can sum up this article, allow us to simply say that Orthodoxy teaches that Heaven is an eternity of enjoying the radiance of God, because we are being conformed into His Light. The pure of heart will see God simply because they want to. They are literally willing their own salvation, perpetually, by the grace of God.
Hell, is an eternity of the exact opposite. It is an eternity of an obstinate will, that cannot change, which resists conforming to that Light and therefore burns from it.
Man’s merit (or lack thereof) is simply is to what degree he is participating in the life of God via Theosis. Hence, merit (or lack thereof) does not deserve Heaven or Hell as a matter of strict retribution, but rather it simply coincides where on the “spectrum” of God’s Light the soul will be after death. The volition of the soul decides whether the experience of Light is joyful or joyless.
For Saint Mark of Ephesus, the preceding view of the afterlife made the idea of Purgatory incomprehensible. So, even if the thoughts explicitly referred to in the preceding are not explicitly held by every Orthodox Christian, they are certainly part of the undercurrent of Orthodox thought. This makes their opposition to a literal Purgatory more understandable.