Death and Concepts of the Afterlife, Orthodox and Catholic


I promised to write this piece for a group of students who paid a visit to my parish back before Pascha, in response to some very good questions about our understanding of the afterlife as reflected in the architecture.

There are different ways of describing what happens after death according to both Orthodox and Catholics. The Orthodox take issue, of course, with the idea of what Roman (or Latin) Catholics call ‘purgatory’, presumably on the basis that it takes on too geographical a sense, and suggests that those who go to purgatory are there in order to atone for sins committed in life in punitive, as opposed to purifying, terms. Well, I am sure I am not alone among theologians in seeing that the conflict between the two points of view lies more in their description and historic characterisation as opposed to something substantial. By way of illustrating this, then, I will try to set out an analogy for what happens after death that, I hope, will hardly raise a brow in either tradition.

To this end, we must begin with two propositions: 1) that God can be envisaged as an all-consuming fire – something like the sun, and 2) that the purpose of life is to be united with God and so to be purified – that is, to become more and more like Him – as we move in His direction over the course of our lives. Once we have accepted these two propositions, then we can turn our attention to where life begins, and follow it to its end.

Let us start our analogy by imagining a lone figure standing on a plain, and for the sake of ease, let us say that the figure is male. While our figure stands there, he feels some pull on him. He does not know where the pull comes from, or what the nature of the pull even is, but he feels compelled to go where it leads, especially seeing as he has little other idea as to where else he might go. So he begins to walk, and as he does, he eventually comes upon a stream on the other side of which is a high mountain. Now he can either turn back, stay where he is, or choose to cross this stream. Again, instinct impels him to cross, and he descends into the water, walks to the opposite bank, and emerges from the water refreshed and staring at the mountain’s base. Now our figure does not know quite what to do, so he wanders around the base for some time, picking up stones, kicking the dirt, and looking up the mountain expectantly, hoping that he might catch a glimpse of where he is to go, what route he should follow. Eventually, some kind passers-by give him a prompt, and he makes his first tentative moves toward climbing.

This is no recreational climb; now that the figure has chosen to start, he is in it for the long haul. He looks up, and although he can see well enough in front of him, there is a dense layer of cloud inhibiting his ability to see the ultimate destination. There are others on the mountainside along with him, though, and from time to time he greets them or receives an encouraging word, even if his focus is generally on the upward journey. Eventually, he reaches the layer of cloud, and without knowing exactly what lies on the other side, he plunges in. He loses his sight in the heaviness of the fog, but after a time feels it begin to thin out. He then climbs with renewed energy as he senses an increase in heat and brightness. Finally, he emerges, and is almost blinded by the light streaming down on him.

We might have thought that, having passed through the layer of cloud, the figure was at his destination, but no. There is always more to a mountain than what we can see from the ground. Although with nothing to obscure his vision the man can see differently now, and although he now knows precisely what his objective is in a way he never did when he was below the cloud, he must finish the climb before he can enjoy the unparalleled experience of standing on the summit, in closest possible proximity to the sun.

You will, of course, have guessed that the figure in this analogy is any Christian, that the stream represents baptism (entrance into the Church), that the mountain represents the Christian life, the cloud layer, death, and the remaining mountain before the summit, what the Latins call ‘purgatory’, but what we all might call, simply, ‘the rest of the journey before coming face-to-face with God’.

I suggest that this remaining part of the journey is rightly identified with the process of purgation, but I would not be comfortable defining it as an absolutely distinct place from the rest of life. Indeed, as the analogy illustrates, the whole of life is purgative, in that over the course of our ascent to God, we are meant to grow in strength and wisdom even while we ‘grow out of’ our sins. In other words, the journey toward God is purgative by its very nature, and what happens after death is merely an extension of that.

Let’s switch analogies. Anyone who has ever had a pint of Guinness knows that when the glass is first placed on the bar, it is opaque. Even holding it up to the light yields nothing but a pleasant reddish hue, it is so impermeable. That full pint of Guinness represents us in life, burdened with sin and all those things that weigh us down. Over time, though, as that Guinness gets drunk, the glass becomes more and more transparent. It remains without doubt the same glass, but the light begins to stream through it. That is what happens to us as we move through life and are purged of our sins. As when St John the Baptist said, ‘I must decrease in order that He [Jesus] might increase’, our journey through life is not one by which we lose our identity, but it is one by which we seek to reign in our ego for the sake of allowing our Christ-like identity to shine through. By the time the Guinness is down and the glass is empty, then, we have something resembling the perfect state of the soul: completely transparent to the light; an individual whose nature is illumined all the way through by the fire of God.

Bearing in mind that I am seeking to describe the process of purgation and final union with God – that is, what Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe to be the purpose of life and the state of the soul after death – in two simple analogies, neither will be perfect, and neither will adequately address every issue that may arise. What I am trying to do with the two images here, though, is to take the language of East and West, resolve the tension between them, and so proffer a comprehensive, non-polemical picture of life and death.

There is much more to say about this, but we shall explore it at greater length over time.


One response to “Death and Concepts of the Afterlife, Orthodox and Catholic

  1. Feels to me like you’ve left the second analogy short…. as the guiness faces its untimely end an angel from behind the bar accompanies the glass on the last leg of the journey toward perfect brilliance – to the dishwasher.

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