Sergius Bulgakov: The Active Passivity of the Afterlife

Radonitsa

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?

Truth.

Revelation.

Self-awareness.

Judgment.

“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)

“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.

(Go to “Universal Salvation”)

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39 Responses to Sergius Bulgakov: The Active Passivity of the Afterlife

  1. Marc says:

    The need to control and intimidate the masses led to the distortions of the Faith by the clerical and governmental classes in the Imperial period. The teachings that there is no salvation after death, and that God will torment people for all eternity are man mades corruptions of the Faith. Those who continue to perpetrate these lies are minions of Satan the devil.

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  2. PJ says:

    Marc,

    That is absurdly simplistic. Many saintly men have taught one or more of the following propositions: hell is real; hell is eternal; postmortem repentance is impossible. These men were not stooges of the imperial or ecclesiastical hierarchy, motivated by a “need to control and intimidate the masses,” nor were they “minions of Satan the devil.” Rather, they believed that they were faithfully representing the apostolic teaching, as reflected in Scripture and Tradition. Some of these men are among the most celebrated names of the Christian faith: John Chrysostom, Augustine, Cyril of Jerusalem, Cyprian, John of Damascus, Gregory the Great. There has always been a tradition of “fire and brimstone” eschatology within the catholic, orthodox Faith. It was more pronounced in some churches than in others (the North Africans were notorious). These eschatological beliefs were firmly entrenched long before Constantine, and are manifest in the writings of the Ante-Nicene fathers.

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    • Marc says:

      The true Gospel is absurdly simplistic. So much so even a child can understand it. It takes the intellectual pride of sinful adults to really mess it up.

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      • PJ says:

        There’s a difference, however subtle, between the simple and the simplistic. I suggest that the Gospel is the former, but certainly not the latter.

        Regardless, your assessment of mainstream eschatology is woefully lacking in nuance. It’s ahistorical — even conspiratorial.

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      • Marc says:

        PJ,

        Thanks for the correction on simple vs simplistic. I agree with your observation below that the Gospel is the former. Regarding your other exceptions to my post: I respect your opinion regarding historical accuracy and a possible conspiracy. Satan and the demons have and continue to conspire to distort the Gospel. As anyone who understands warfare will tell you, you target the leadership of your enemy if you want to prevail. Regarding historical accuracy, we have to consider that it is very probable that the early Church leaders who lived in the Greco-Roman world were influenced by the pagan and Platonic philosophies that were pervasive at the time.

        Just as Roman Catholics and Orthodox Catholics reject Sola Scriptura, we must be careful not to become Sola Patristic. Holy Apostolic Tradition provides a boundary for us to grow in grace and knowledge. I truly enjoy the opportunity to do that with you and Fr. Aidan.

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      • PJ says:

        Both Scripture and Tradition provide ample reason for believing that hell is real, eternal, and unescapable. Not to say that there aren’t verses and voices to the contrary: But the idea that eternal perdition was imported wholesale by misguided early Christians from surrounding Greco-Roman paganism is simply ahistorical. In fact, from perhaps the *least* Hellenistic church — that of 3rd century North Africa — came some of the most intimidating visions of post-mortem punishment ever to grace the pages of Christian theology.

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      • Marc says:

        There is no doubt that hell is real PJ. The problem is that the Platonic and pagan concepts of natural immortality conflicts with the Scriptures. Only God is naturally immortal and He alone can gift His rational creatures with immortal life, or destroy them in Gehenna (see Matthew 10:28 and Ezekiel 28:13-19). The second death is annihilation which is eternal, not eternal torment as Satan would have us believe.

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      • PJ says:

        Nobody believes that man is “naturally immortal.” Traditionally, Christians have believed that God bequeathed to man an immortality through his spiritual nature, which is in the image and likeness of Himself. The immortality of the human person, as well as the eternal duration of punishment, are both deducible from Scripture. For instance: “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). Or: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:46). There is a clear parallelism developed by our Lord between damnation and salvation. In this last verse, the same word used to describe the quality of life is used to describe the quality of punishment: “aionion.” This is rightly translated as “eternal,” given the context here and elsewhere in Scripture.

        Do you want to espouse universalism or annihilationism? That’s fine. I’m sympathetic to both notions. However, it is simply slanderous to suggest that the traditional Christian eschatological vision — embraced by countless saints, known and anonymous — is anything other than the product of careful exegesis in good faith. It might be wrong, but it it isn’t imported from paganism. (This isn’t to say that there weren’t analogous doctrines in various pagan religions and philosophies. There were. But so what? There are many parallels between pagan faiths and Christianity.)

        Enough with this Romanides propaganda.

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      • Marc says:

        PJ,
        Please explain “Romanides Propaganda.” Also as you have noted that the teaching on eternal torment could be wrong, please share with me what you believe could have caused this error other than a belief that the soul is naturally immortal and cannot be destroyed.

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  3. Chris E.W. Green says:

    Fr. Kimel, have you read George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons? Or his fantasy novels (Lilith, especially)?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Chris, a long time ago I read MacDonald’s Curdie books and Lilith. As I recall, I loved the Curdie books but was not thrilled with Lilith. I have also read several of MacDonald’s homilies. I used to have several volumes of his sermons. But these were given away, along with three-quarters of my library in the “great purge” five years ago. Now I find myself looking for books that I no longer own. Sigh. Such is life. Dispossession is necessary for theosis, right?

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      • Chris E.W. Green says:

        Ah, yes! But I must say I’m surprised you didn’t like Lilith. Not a perfect story, by any means, but nonetheless it brings to bear this vision of hell-as-purgatory in remarkable ways, I think. His sermon “The Consuming Fire” stays with me as well.

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  4. Marc says:

    Bulgakov reminds us that we human beings are tripartite, having a spirit, soul, and body (see 1 Thessalonians 5:23). This is often overlooked by many who opine on the nature of the intermediate state. The human spirit is what enables us to have a relationship with God and other spiritual creatures, and it is the spirit that keeps the soul alive when the body dies. Although the spirit and soul can be destroyed by God (see Matthew 10:28 and John 3:16), the spiritual death we speak of in this life is more like the grass becoming dormant for lack of water. This is why those who receive the Holy Spirit are spiritually born again, and experience the First Resurrection by entering into the Church, either in the Heavenly Jerusalem or on the earth (see Revelation 20:4-6). The spiritual realm of Sheol/Hades was changed forever when the Lord entered and preached the Gospel to all. There may be some who prefer to be evil like the demons and remain, but the gates of Hades no longer constrains the many who seek the way to truth and life. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

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  5. tgbelt says:

    Really great post Fr Aidan!

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  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    The citations included in the above article are from his chapter on the “Death and the State After Death” but Bulgakov’s most interesting reflections on hell, damnation, and final judgment are included in the final chapter of his book. It is an extremely long chapter (about 150 pages!). I have read through it once, but I’ll need to read through it a couple more times before I feel comfortable blogging on Bulgakov again. I’ll probably return to Bulgakov in a couple of months. He’s a very stimulating, even exciting, theologian to read, but also way beyond my pay grade.

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  7. Rhonda says:

    I agree, Fr. Aidan, great post!

    “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”

    This quote of Bulgakov’s reminds me of Fr. Stephen’s book One-Storey Universe. I think that such definitive statements & branding of Heaven or Hell in such absolute terms is reminiscent of the 2-storey mindset Fr. Stephen warns against. Since becoming Orthodox I have come to the conclusion that physical death is the passage to the ultimate, absolute fulfillment of heavenly communion that we begin experiencing in this physical life when we pursue the path of salvation or theosis.

    As a catechumen I read a book by Bulgakov on the Orthodox Church which I liked. This was not well received in my parish. Ironically, they very much liked Fr. Seraphim Rose whose writings I (& the priest) did not.

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  8. Rhonda says:

    Marc,
    It is my understanding that according to Orthodox teaching, Hell & judgement do not yet exist, nor are Heaven & Hell places of reward & punishment as if Heaven were located on the right while Hell is located on the left. Heaven & Hell will be for us what we have made of our lives here in the material world; have we responded with a “yes” to God’s love (salvation ) or a “no” thus rejecting God’s love? Fr. Aidan has posted quotes from other writers that state Heaven/Hell is how we experience God’s eternal presence at the recapitulation of all things. The ramifications of last phrase is what Fr. Aidan has been discussing as it relates to the unsaved. In the meantime of our current lives we are to subject ourselves to self-judgement & transform our lives from our own self-made “hells” through life in Christ–the path of salvation, through the grace of God’s love through the Church, the Body of Christ.

    Fr. Aidan, I apologize now for the following to Marc & feel free to edit or omit as you see fit.

    Marc,
    As a fellow Orthodox I do not question your sincerity of belief, however I do question your technique. It is improper & down right un-Christian to go around brandishing those that do not believe as you do “minions of Satan” for all are the image of God & thus His children. One cannot open the truth to others when communication is closed. Please, let the fundamentalists keep the corner on the market of their “You’re gonna burn in Hell!” mantra, their “biblical billy-club” faith & their cruel, angry, vindictive god. It has no place in Orthodoxy in which “God is Love.”

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    • PJ says:

      Rhonda,

      “It is my understanding that according to Orthodox teaching, Hell & judgement do not yet exist,”

      Then “where” (so to speak) are those who have passed way? If they are in some sort of “soul sleep,” a la Martin Luther, then how can they hear our prayers and intercede for us, as we see in the Book of Revelation?

      “nor are Heaven & Hell places of reward & punishment as if Heaven were located on the right while Hell is located on the left. Heaven & Hell will be for us what we have made of our lives here in the material world; have we responded with a “yes” to God’s love (salvation ) or a “no” thus rejecting God’s love?”

      This might make sense if our fate is to remain eternally dis-incarnate. But in the resurrection we will receive back our bodies and dwell on a new earth in the New Jerusalem. Will everyone dwell in that glorious, heavenly city together — some suffering atrocious pain and others enjoying wonderful pleasure? That seems … strange.

      Like Marc said, I’m suspicious of any eschatological vision which seems non-spatial. Surely, the new creation will be extra-spatial — but non-spatial? I don’t think so, given what we know of Christ’s resurrected body.

      From what I’ve been taught, man endures two judgments. The first occurs immediately after death. Based upon this judgment, one is either in heaven (in harmony with God) or in hell (in discord with God). Then, at the end of the world, the resurrection occurs. At this point, everyone receives back his body. Some dwell in the New Eden, the New Jerusalem, a place of holy pleasure, while others suffer in what is called “outer darkness” or the “lake of fire,” a location characterized by physical and emotional anguish. There’s much I don’t understand about this. For instance, are New Jerusalem and the lake of fire in the same new creation? If so, then can those in “heaven” see those in “hell,” and vice versa? Can the new creation even properly be called “heaven”? I somewhat dislike this, given its celestial connotation. Perhaps I’m being crudely materialistic, like Papias…Bah…A mirror darkly indeed. I often think all of this is so far beyond our imaginations it’s not even worth trying…

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      • Rhonda says:

        PJ,
        Thanks for the questions 🙂 I will try to answer them the best I can as the layman that I am; I am sure the priests that frequent this blog would do much better…but, here goes!

        “Then “where” (so to speak) are those who have passed way? If they are in some sort of “soul sleep,” a la Martin Luther, then how can they hear our prayers and intercede for us, as we see in the Book of Revelation??

        Those that have passed on–the Bosom of Abraham as my priest has told me…now, I will readily admit that just what this means is lost to me. I only know that it is neither Heaven nor Hell. Also, it is my understanding the only ones we know for sure that are currently “in Heaven” (God’s presence) after physical death are the Saints…

        Soul sleep–NOT an Orthodox belief/doctrine…eesh!

        “This might make sense if our fate is to remain eternally dis-incarnate. But in the resurrection we will receive back our bodies and dwell on a new earth in the New Jerusalem. Will everyone dwell in that glorious, heavenly city together — some suffering atrocious pain and others enjoying wonderful pleasure? That seems … strange.”

        Yes, in the Resurrection we will receive our bodies back in glorified & perfected form just as Christ did His. My comment has no ties to being “dis-incarnate” nor does it imply such.

        Since becoming Orthodox I have found that I am far less infatuated with St. John the Theologian’s Revelation than I was as a Protestant. There is much imagery & symbolism in that book & we need to be wary of too literal of an interpretation…let’s leave that to the Protestants & their Rapture Theory which is nothing more than literalizing the text far beyond its original intent. There is a reason that Revelation is the only NT book that is not read in the liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church…I cannot speak for the RCC here.

        I will venture this though regarding the New Jerusalem: might it not be imagery for the fulfillment of union between the heavenly (uncreated) with the cosmos (created)? Or might it be the restoration of Paradise that was lost through Adam’s & Eve’s sin in the Garden? I do not proclaim to know such things, this is just conjecture on my part… Where the text of Revelation is concerned, I am always leery of using it as a text to either prove or disprove. It was written in imagery that the 1st-c. Christians would have understood & one should refrain from applying it too liberally as well as too literally in our 21st-c. context or according to our 21st-c. understanding. Also where Revelation is concerned I keep in mind Gilbert Chesterton’s famous quip: “And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.” (Orthodoxy, p. 10)

        “I’m suspicious of any eschatological vision which seems non-spatial. Surely, the new creation will be extra-spatial — but non-spatial? I don’t think so, given what we know of Christ’s resurrected body.”

        I also do not imply nor believe that Heaven/Hell are spatial, non-spatial, super-spatial, nor extra-spatial. Neither do I believe that God is natural, supernatural, extra natural or natural on steroids; rather God is supra-natural (beyond natural, even beyond our concept of “supra-natural”). Rather I believe that the final recaptitulation of all things will result in all being supra-spatial; beyond spatial limitations & even our feeble conceptions of spatial/nonspatial.

        I am glad you mentioned Christ’s resurrected body; remember, even though Christ had a physical body capable of being touched (by St. Thomas) & ate/drank after His resurrection (Emmaus road), He still walked through walls/doors & appeared/disappeared. So can we really declare the “spatial” qualities of Heaven/Hell? Do we really know what “spatial” might involve? To try to declare, define or conceive of with any surety Heaven, Hell, the new earth or the New Jerusalem, for that matter, in our physical created terms is improper & unwise. Far too many people have a conception of God that is nothing more than the conception of themselves; much the same thing has been done with Heaven & Hell. God is the only absolute & only true reality; what we think to be reality is just simply not real. Me thinks we haven’t even so much as a barest clue as to what exactly “reality” will be for eternity!

        Finally, in one of Fr. Aidan’s postings/comments I believe that he or someone stated that we do not really have a good understanding (nor can we IMO) of just exactly what Heaven/Hell really mean or are or will be. I believe someone posted that he does not truly know what Hell will be or is, but only that he does not want to go there…or something along those lines. I liked that comment then & I still like it now. If Heaven is being eternally in God’s presence, then I must admit that I do not & cannot know exactly what Heaven is anymore than I can truly know/understand God Himself; I only know that I want to be in eternal union with Him. For me that is sufficient comprehension of the Mystery I cannot comprehend.

        Again this is just my rudimentary understanding…priests are much better qualified than I as a layman…

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      • PJ says:

        Fair enough.

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      • Marc says:

        Rhonda,
        I know you don’t think the Book of Revelation is of much help in understanding these issues, however the first resurrection and the second death are mentioned no where else in the Scriptures. The Church acted in Council to put an end to chiliasm by inserting into the Nicene Creed, “His kingdom shall have no end.” Since then the Church has understood the millennial period spoken of in Revelation as the period of time between the Ascension and the Second Coming. The Church also teaches that the first resurrection associated with this period of time is experienced by those who are born again spiritually in the Church, whether they be in the Church in heaven or on earth. My experience regarding the Book of Revelation has been the opposite of yours in that since becoming Orthodox I find it more illuminating.

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  9. Marc says:

    Rhonda,
    Thanks for your comments. The use of the term “Hell” is a poor choice of words. It is used in many English translations of the Bible in place of Sheol/Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus causing great confusion. Heaven can also be misunderstood because of multiple uses. Like Fr. Aidan, I have serious problems with those who opine that there is no spatial reality after the Last Judgment. Regarding your concern about my use of the term “minions of Satan,” a minion is a servant and we are warned that we either serve Satan or God. Most of us fluctuate regarding this reality in our lives. As Orthodox Christian we reject Sola Scriptura and Sola Patristics, The boundaries of Holy Apostolic Tradition provide quite a bit of room for various opinions. It is instructive to note that the nature of Gehenna, the Lake of Fire, is not a dogma of the Church.

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    • Rhonda says:

      As an Orthodox I agree with what you are saying whole-heartedly. It’s the “labelling” that I disagree with. It comes across as harsh. I was raised with such “harshness” & it is one of the reasons I left Protestantism. Therefore, it greatly saddens me when I see an Orthodox brandish it. Most of the fathers were seldom harsh when their writings are considered overall. As we have seen they could be on occasion, but usually they were not; all I am asking is that we follow their “usual” example.

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      • Marc says:

        To use strong language to point out the errors of those who serve Satan by distorting the Gospel is a “technique” that is reasonable when you consider how many people are repelled by these distorted concepts of God’s judgments. It was the writings of Church Fathers concerning the Harrowing of Hades and the rejection of eternal punishing that led me to discover the really good news of the Gospel in the Orthodox Church. That there is baggage and man made traditions in the Church that needs to be discarded is true, yet for those who seek to grow in grace and knowledge of the Truth their is no better place to be. Discernment is always necessary.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Marc, I have found that harsh or inflammatory language discourages constructive dialogue and discussion, particularly on the internet. We all need to be careful. Civility at all times.

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      • Marc says:

        I agree with your concerns Fr. Aidan. However, it is impossible to avoid the sensitivities of everyone when carry on a discussion. If you feel that the word minion is harsh or inflammatory, I will refrain from using it again on your blog. If there are other issues please be specific, as I am trying to be civil.

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  10. PJ says:

    Just received “Christ the Conqueror of Hell” by Alfeyev. Let’s see what y’all are on to here…

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    • Rhonda says:

      That one’s on my Amazon wish list 😉 I’ve read other stuff by him; you’ll like him.

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      • Marc says:

        Rhonda,
        I hope you and PJ find “Christ the Conqueror of Hell” as illuminating as I did. I think he does a real good job of showing all of the different views held by Church leaders in both the East and West. As on so many issues of faith opinions vary, yet his conclusions are very positive.

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  11. Rhonda says:

    Marc,
    I find it fascinating what words & phrases mean to different people…LOL. Just because I am “less infatuated” with Revelation does not mean I find it “less illuminating”. Just because I am “leery of using it…to either prove or disprove” does not mean that I think it is not “of much help”. The Orthodox Faith actually has deepened my appreciation of the text & my personal yearly cycle of daily Scripture readings include Revelation. A book I recommend is “A Second Look at the Second Coming” by T.L. Frazier for an Orthodox perspective of Revelation. Just as most tend to read Genesis far too literal/historical, such is their tendency with Revelation; & with the same disastrous results. Therefore, I choose to follow the Church’s example of caution concerning Revelation.

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    • Marc says:

      Rhonda,
      Thanks for sharing your additional thoughts. I also think T.L Frazier’s book is one of the best because he does such a good job of eliminating what is clearly, and not likely true (apophatic). In the appendix of his book, Mr. Frazier offers an outline on the Book of Revelation that is in keeping with what most Church Fathers and leaders seem to agree on. There are passages that deal with the Church’s experience in the past, present, and future. As would be fitting for the last book to be placed into the Canon, I see the recapitulation of the past experiences of God’s people in the first four seals of the scroll, the historical and current condition of the Church in the fifth seal, and the future of the Church and all mankind in the sixth and seventh seals. You are very correct in the use of caution when opining on unfulfilled prophecy. Even opinions that conform to the boundaries of Holy Apostolic Tradition, remain opinions. Your point about Genesis is also well taken regarding literal interpretations. It is clear from the revelations of science that the Day’s of Creation are not 24 hour periods of time, but rather periods of time related to the creative activities of God. In the same way the Day of the Lord will not be a 24 hour period, but rather a time of God’s judgments and the Resurrection harvest leading to the Last Judgment.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      For everyone’s interest, one of the first Eastern commentaries on the Apocalypse was written by St Andrew of Caesarea in the sixth century. An English translation of it, along with the translator’s Ph.D dissertation, can be downloaded here.

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  12. Andrew says:

    You have an amazing blog, Father!

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  13. Pingback: Repentance in the afterlife | Again and Again

  14. Renton says:

    I’m afraid that brother Bulgakov forgot that resurrection means -according to the New Testament- a bodily resurrection, the New Creation, a new embodied life, remember the body of Christ, both material and spiritual.

    Jesus was the First Fruit of the resurrected, and by his rising we learn Resurrection is -as N.T. Wright put it- Life after life after death.

    I apologize for my English so Catalan is my mother tongue.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      He didn’t forget. That’s just a later chapter in the book. In this article I only covered Fr Sergius’s reflections on the intermediate state (i.e., Hades/Paradise). When he speaks about the “afterlife,” he is referring to the intermediate state. Perhaps sometime in the future I will be able to blog on Bulgakov’s reflections on the Last Judgment and the Resurrection of the Dead.

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  15. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Yesterday I received through inter-library loan a copy of After Death by Archimandrite Vasilios Bakogiannis. In this book the author presents a different, and more traditional, understanding of the passivity of the afterlife. Contra Bulgakov, Bakogiannis denies that the departed possess free will:

    God, then, for the sake of one person can save or have mercy on another. It is on this point that we base our prayers for the dead. Various people pray for various others. And for our sakes, God can have mercy on souls. For He is Lord of the souls. “He who has power over the living and the dead” … We relatives play the role of lawyer for the defence! And the accused depend for support on their lawyers. If the lawyer is good, the sentence may be reduced! The accused may be acquitted! And we constantly beseech God that the punishment of the souls may be lightened or even that they may be acquitted.

    The souls do not pray to leave Hell and go to Paradise. “In Hades there is no repentance” (Psalm 6,5. Septuagint version). We pray for the souls. And we do not pray for the souls to go to Paradise. But for God to take them to Paradise! “With the saints gives rest Christ to the souls of Your servants.” We pray to God. And particularly to God the All-powerful and Lover of Mankind. However much we want somebody to go to Paradise, God wants it infinitely more. Because God has more loving-kindness than we do. …

    Prayers we make for the dead are even more powerful than those we make for the living. Living people have “free will.” They decide for themselves what to do. Whether to go to Paradise or not. Nobody forces them, nobody puts them under pressure. Not even God. God simply shows them the ways and means to repentance. And they choose.

    But the dead no longer have free will. They are no longer masters of their souls. So it is easier for God to have mercy on a soul. This is why whatever we do for souls is heeded by God! What precisely can our prayers achieve for souls? Two things: the first is that at the exactly moment when we pray the soul receives mercy; the second is that the soul can even get out of Hell. And go to Paradise! The first is certain, the second uncertain, but not impossible. “Alms-giving, liturgies and remembrance services are of great benefit to the soul; they are even able to release it from Hell” (Revelation of the Angel to Saint Makarios). …

    In the next life, only blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (according to the fathers this is unbelief or heresy) is unforgivable. People do not go to Hell only for this sin, but only this one remains unforgivable. It follows, then, that all other sins, however serious they are(!), perhaps can be pardoned. And then the soul will get out of Hell. Why else do we say the “Thrice-holies” and the Remembrance Services? (pp. 86-88)

    Because the departed lack free will, they are completely dependent upon the prayers of the Church. God may answer our prayers and liberate the damned from hell. Bulgakov, however, strongly objects to this understanding of the utter passivity of the departed. For one thing, it appears to bypass synergism.

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