‘Death is a great mystery’, says St. Ignaty Brianchaninov. ‘It is the birth of the human person from transient life into eternity’. Christianity does not consider death as an end: on the contrary, death is the beginning of a new life, to which earthly life is but a preparation. The human person was created for eternity; in Paradise he was fed from the ‘tree of life’ and was immortal. After the fall, however, the way to the ‘tree of life’ was blocked, and he became mortal and temporal. According to some church writers, humanity was sentenced to death because God’s commandment was broken. Other authors hold the opinion that death was imposed in order to liberate humans from sin and through death open the way to immortality.
What happens to souls after death? According to the traditional teaching of the Orthodox Church, souls do not leave the earth immediately after their departure from the body. For three days they remain close to the earth and visit the places with which they were associated. Meanwhile, the living show particular consideration to the souls of the deceased by offering memorial prayers and funeral services. During these three days, the personal task of the living is to be reconciled with the departed, to forgive them and to ask their forgiveness.
With the passing of three days the souls of the departed ascend to the Judge in order to undergo their personal trial. Righteous souls are then taken by the angels and brought to the threshold of Paradise, which is called ‘Abraham’s bosom’: there they remain waiting for the Last Judgment. Sinners, on the other hand, find themselves ‘in Hell’, ‘in torments’ (cf. Luke 16:22-23). But the final division into the saved and the condemned will actually take place at the universal Last Judgment, when ‘many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt’ (Dan 12:2). Before the Last Judgment, the righteous souls anticipate the joy of Paradise, while the souls of sinners anticipate the torments of Gehenna.
According to many church Fathers, the new body will be immaterial and incorruptible, like the body of Christ after His resurrection. However, as St. Gregory of Nyssa points out, there will still be an affinity between a person’s new immaterial body and the one he had possessed in his earthly life. Gregory sees the proof of this in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus: the former would not have recognized the latter in Hell if no physical characteristics remained that allowed people to identify each other. There is what Gregory calls the ‘seal’ of the former body imprinted on every soul. The appearance of one’s new incorruptible body will in a fashion resemble the old material body. It is also maintained by St. Gregory that the incorruptible body after the resurrection will bear none of the marks of corruption that characterized the material body, such as mutilation, aging, and so on. Immediately after the common resurrection, will be the Last Judgment at which the final decision is taken as to who is worthy of the Kingdom of heaven and who should be sentenced to the torments of Hell. Before this event, however, there exists the possibility for the person in Hell to gain release; after the Last Judgment this possibility no longer remains.