If the eschatological vision of St Isaac of Nineveh is to be fulfilled, then it must be possible for those who die outside of Christ Jesus to subsequently repent of their sins and turn to God in faith.
I invite you to bracket your skepticism and to entertain this possibility. What is life in the afterlife? The great Russian Orthodox theologian Fr Sergius Bulgakov thought deeply on this question. He was very much aware that he was treading upon holy ground, yet he also believed that the gospel of resurrection enjoined him to share with the Church his vision of the afterlife and its fresh possibilities.
In death the soul and spirit of the human person is separated from the body, but the soul remains united to the spirit, thus making possible continuing immortal existence. “The human spirit,” Bulgakov explains, “exists as the hypostatic potency of the integral man, who has a body whose energy is the soul. In death, this energy is paralyzed but not annihilated. It remains a quality of the personal spirit” (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 356). Life continues beyond the grave. Originally man was intended by God to simultaneously and eternally participate in the corporeal and spiritual realms; but in the fall, he was exiled from the spiritual world and human consciousness became imprisoned in matter. Death has now imposed a dualism upon man’s experience of himself and reality:
Death divides human life into two halves, as it were: psychic-corporeal being and spiritual-psychic being, before death and after death. The two halves are inseparably linked; they both belong to the life of the same individual, to his unique life that would have been free of this rupture if it had remained apart from this pathological dialectic of life and death, from the schism of the dual-unity. But this is no longer the case: To achieve fullness of humanization, a human being must go to the end of himself, not only in mortal life but also in the afterlife state, in order to attain the ripeness that makes him capable of receiving resurrection to eternal life in the fullness of true humanity. Understood this way, as an essentially necessary part of human life, death is actually an act of continuing life, although life that is affected by “dormition.” (pp. 359-360)
“Death is the sickness of sicknesses, the suffering of sufferings,” Bulgakov writes, and yet “the path of death has been followed to the end by Christ and, after Him, by the Mother of God” (p. 353). Man is made in the image of God. He is not made for death. Yet death pursues him. Death captures him. Death kills him.
What then? What becomes of us? What happens to us?
“In death and after death,” Bulgakov writes, “an individual sees his past early life as a whole, in its synthesis. The latter is, in itself, already a judgment, for it clarifies the general connection, the content and meaning of the life that has passed. Here, there is a clear vision not only of the synthesis but of the truth itself, in the presence of the spiritual world, free of all carnal partiality, in the light of divine justice. This is the self-evidentness of the divine judgment” (p. 360). The judgment of the after-life is self-knowledge and self-verdict, an immanent judgment of conscience. It is not yet a perfect knowledge. That perfect knowledge will only become available to us at the completion of human history and the final judgment. Bulgakov calls it a “preliminary judgment”—”an afterlife consciousness of self and the existential self-determination that comes from this consciousness” (p. 360). We are brought into a true knowledge of God, the world, and ourselves. “In the afterlife,” he explains, “the false light and shadows of our world have disappeared and all things are illuminated by the sun of justice, fixed in the heavenly heights, with its beams penetrating into the depths of souls and hearts” (p. 361). We will see ourselves as we really are.
Bulgakov rejects the medieval schema of hell-purgatory-heaven and affirms the more primitive view of hell (hades) and paradise. But more importantly, he rejects the doctrine of irrevocable damnation and suggests, rather, that hades be understood as a form of purgatory:
One cannot argue against the general idea of a purgatorial state beyond the grave, but is it necessary to schematize it as a third place, alongside paradise and hell? The basic notion here, which is proper to Catholic rigorism and also contaminates Orthodox thought, is that a person is definitively and irrevocably earmarked for one of the two states of the afterlife, paradise or hell, even before the universal judgment. But this assertion does not have a sufficient basis, at least in Orthodoxy, which recognizes the efficacy of the prayer for the deceased, for which no limits are set (this is expressed with particular force in the third prayer of the Pentecost vespers). According to Orthodox doctrine, the state of sinners in the afterlife is that of a temporary purgatory rather than that of an irrevocable hell. (p. 361)
Personal life does not end with death but continues. Self-consciousness and creative self-determination remain proper to the departed human being. Through death the individual is introduced to a new knowledge of God and of the spiritual world: “This new knowledge consists in communion with the spiritual world of incorporeal beings; first of all, with human souls, communion with whom—in them and through them—is extended to the souls of the whole of humankind (for incorporeal souls cannot be confined in isolation cells); as well as with the angelic world and the demonic world. But the supreme spiritual gift acquired in the afterlife state is a new and different knowledge of God, proper to the world of incorporeal spirits. For such spirits, God’s being is as clearly visible as the sun in the sky is for us” (p. 363).
Hence Bulgakov criticizes the popular construals that reduce human existence in the afterlife to unchanging passivity. Such suggestions violate the nature of personal being. As spirit and bearer of the divine image, the human person cannot be frozen or immobilized and remain a living person. He may be deprived of his physical senses and his historical involvement in the world; but he is also granted in the afterlife a dynamic experience of the spiritual realm. In death, says Bulgakov, we are given “new sources and a new knowledge” of life that were inaccessible to us in our mortal existence (p. 362).
Bulgakov thus sees our afterlife experience as essential to our preparation for our life of resurrection:
It is also necessary to recognize that this afterlife of an individual in communion with the spiritual world is not less important for his final state than early life and, in every case, is a necessary part of the path that leads to universal resurrection. Every individual must, in his own way, ripen spiritually to this resurrection and determine himself with finality both in good and in evil. One must therefore conclude that, even though in resurrection an individual remains identical to himself in everything he has acquired in earthly life, nevertheless, in the afterlife, he becomes other than he was even in relation to the state in which he found himself at the moment of death. The afterlife is not only “reward” and “punishment,” and not only a “purgatory,” but also a spiritual school, a new experience of life, which does not remain without consequence but enriches and changes each individual’s spiritual image. We know nothing about the degree or manner of this process. But it is important to establish that, even in the afterlife, human souls experience and acquire something new, each in its own way, in its freedom. (p. 363)
May the sinner repent of his sins in the afterlife? Absolutely, answers Bulgakov. The departed soul does not lose his freedom and creative energy. He has acquired a new kind of existence that involves an expansion and deepening of spiritual knowledge. Repentance in the afterlife must be different from repentance in our earthly life. The departed soul no longer acts in the world as he once did. Hence he no longer has available to him the kind of penitence made possible by historical existence. But still the person may repent and change his orientation toward God:
Of course, here too, the fullness of the life of the living is different from that of the dead, and the measure of their repentance is not the same. Clearly, the repentance of the deceased, as a complex inner process of awakening to spiritual life, differs from what takes place in the living. Earthly life is a foundation for the future life, but it is not the only foundation. Earthly life and the afterlife are connected as different aspects of the one life of one and the same spirit. One usually prefers to conceive the afterlife state of “sinners” (but who is free of sin and therefore does not need to repent?) in the juridical and penitentiary form of a sentence served in an afterlife prison, without possibility of pardon or parole. However, it is completely impossible to allow that the spirit could be in a state so static, so frozen in an unchanging spasm or so immersed in passive contemplation of its past actions and deprived of the capacity for future life. … From all this we conclude that the afterlife state is not death, and not even a stupor of the spirit, but a continuation of the life of the spirit begun on earth. Thus, despite the reduced condition for this life which passes outside the body and despite a certain passivity resulting from this, the afterlife state cannot be considered as given once and for all and unchanging, with the total absence of creative freedom. Rather, it is a continuation of spiritual life, which does not end on the other side of death’s threshold. The afterlife state is a stage of the path leading to resurrection. (pp. 365-366)
Bulgakov acknowledges that the school theologians “consider death to be the limit that represents the end of the time of deeds and the beginning of the time of retribution, so that, after death, one can neither repent nor correct one’s life. Such is the dominant opinion of theologians, which is passed off as the doctrine of the Church” (p. 368). But this passive, retributive understanding of the afterlife violates life, states Bulgakov. Life cannot be bottled up and controlled. It cannot be captured by our scholastic formulae. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of the living, not the dead. Hence we need to understand the afterlife as an active, creative, and essential dimension of the ascent of the human being into the divine life of God. The afterlife brings its own kind of asceticism.
The holy Orthodox Church prays for all the departed, in the confident hope that the God who wills the salvation of every human being will complete his work of salvation in the lives of all. The practice presupposes the synergistic cooperation of the departed with these prayers:
One of the dogmatic presuppositions of the doctrine of eternal torments understood as unchangeable and infinite is the assertion that repentance is impossible in the afterlife as well as after the Last Judgment. But this impossibility is clearly contradicted by the efficacy of prayers for the deceased; nor does it have a biblical justification. For the reception of the assistance of prayer presupposes that the souls of the deceased actively receive this prayer in accordance with the general reality of the energy of the spirit, which is characterized by an uninterrupted continuation of life and new self-determinations that rise thence.
It is true that, in the afterlife, human beings lose the capacity for actions of the earthly type, which includes the participation of the soul and the body (opera meritoria, according to the Catholic doctrine) and direct participation in the making of history. But the disincarnation in death does not suppress the activity of the spirit. This is clear from the fact that saints participate with their prayers in the life of the world and in human history, as revelation shows (Rev. 7:9-17; 8:1-4; 14:1-4; 15:1-4; 20:4-6) and the Church believes. This activity of the spirit can also be concentrated upon repentance in the afterlife, which is facilitated by the prayers of the Church without the possibility of being concretely realized in earthly life. Nevertheless, the afterlife is a continuation of earthly life. (p. 500)
God does not cease to will the eternal salvation of departed souls, nor does he cease in the afterlife to pursue the wicked and summon them to himself in mercy and love. God has so ordered reality that the prayers of the Church, in and by the Spirit, gain a powerful salvific efficacy for the inhabitants of hades. “The boundary between paradise and hell,” Bulgakov writes, “is by no means absolute, for it can be overcome by the prayers of the Church” (p. 367). Nor may we entertain the possibility that God does not hear the prayers of the deceased, thus rendering their repentance ineffectual. “To whom is it given,” Bulgakov asks, “to measure the depth of the mercy of God, who ‘have concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all’ (Rom. 11:32)?” (p. 364).
But as long as the departed soul continues in his rebellion and alienation, his torment continues. He carries his earthly life into his afterlife. His sins follow him. “Although the terms retribution and reward are found in Scripture and are even uttered by the Lord Himself,” elaborates Bulgakov, “we must understand them not as an external juridical law (which would be contrary to the spirit of Christ’s gospel) but as an ontological connection, an internal necessity, according to which an individual suffers to the end all that is inappropriate to his vocation but was committed by him in earthly life: ‘he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire’ (1 Cor. 3:15)” (p. 368).
The life of the afterlife is different from earthly life in one other crucial way. The departed no longer fear death, for death is behind them. As an object of hope and fear death is replaced by the final judgment:
The face of earthly life is turned toward death. Death is an object of horror, about which people try to forget; terrible is the hour of death and the “preliminary judgment.” But despite this and above this, death is a joyous hour of initiation or new revelation, of the fulfillment of the “desire to be delivered and to be with Christ,” of communion with the spiritual world. In practical terms, death, as what awaits us on the immediate horizon, blocks for us what is more distant: the resurrection to come, which seems abstract compared with the immediate concreteness of death. But in the afterlife, all this has changed, for the prospect of death and its revelation no longer menaces us: Death has come and its revelation has been accomplished. The place of death is taken by universal resurrection, which naturally becomes an object of fear and trembling for some and of joyous hope for others, while for many, if not for the majority, it becomes an object of fear and hope at the same time. In any case, in contrast to the world on this side, the spiritual sky in the afterlife shines with the hope of resurrection, and the prayer “even so, come” (Rev. 22:20) has an unfathomable power for us there. (pp. 375-376)
Bulgakov’s understanding of the self-determining possibilities for departed souls has been recently reiterated by Met Hilarion Alfeyev:
Is it at all possible that the fate of a person can be changed after his death? Is death that border beyond which some unchangeable static existence comes? Does the development of the human person not stop after death? It is impossible for one to actively repent in hell; it is impossible to rectify the evil deeds one committed by appropriate good works. It may, however, be possible for one to repent through a “change of heart,” a review of one’s values. One of the testimonies to this is the rich man of the Gospel. He realized the gravity of his situation as soon as [he] found himself in hell. Indeed, in his lifetime he was focused on earthly pursuits and forgot God, but once in hell he realized that God was his only hope for salvation. Besides, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, the fate of a person after death can be changed through the prayer of the church. Thus existence after death has its own dynamics. On the basis of what has been said above, it may be said that after death the development of the human person does not cease, for existence after death is not a transfer from a dynamic into a static being, but rather a continuation on a new level of that road which a person followed in his or her lifetime. (Christ the Conqueror of Hell, pp. 216-217)
And thus the Orthodox offer this prayer each year on the Feast of Pentecost (Vespers):
O Christ our God … who, also, on this all-perfect and saving Feast, art graciously pleased to accept propitiatory prayers for those who are imprisoned in Hell, promising unto us who are held in bondage great hope of release from the vileness that doth hinder us and did hinder them; and that thou wilt send down thy consolation. Hear us, thy humble ones, who make our supplications unto thee, and give rest to the souls of thy servants who have fallen asleep, in a place of light, a place of verdure, a place of refreshment whence all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away: And speedily establish thou their souls in the mansions of the Just; and graciously vouchsafe unto them peace and pardon; for the dead shall not praise thee, neither shall they who are in Hell make bold to offer unto thee confession. But we who are living will bless thee, and will pray, and offer unto thee propitiatory prayers and sacrifices for their souls. (Third Kneeling Prayer at Pentecost)
Domine Jesu Christe, Rex gloriae, libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum de poenis inferni et de profundo lacu. Libera eas de ore leonis, ne absorbeat eas tartarus, ne cadant in obscurum.