At the moment of death, the soul leaves the body and enters its new mode of existence. It does not lose its memory or its ability to think or to feel, but departs to the other world loaded with the burden of its life, with memories of its past and an accountability for its sins.
Christian teaching on the Last Judgement is based on the understanding that all sinful and evil deeds committed by the person leave certain traces on his soul, and that the person is to give an account for everything before that Absolute Good, with Whom no evil or sin can coexist. The Kingdom of God is incompatible with sin: ‘...Nothing unclean will enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life’ (Rev 21:27). Every evil for which repentance was not shown at the sacrament of confession, every sin which was concealed, every defilement of the soul which was not purified, all of this will be revealed during the Last Judgment. In the words of Christ, ‘...There is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light’ (Mark 4:22).
Jesus Christ’s Parable of the Last Judgement (Matt 25:31-46) indicates that for many people the Judgment will become a moment of insight, recognition and conversion, while for others it may turn out to be a great disappointment and frustration. Those who were sure of their own salvation will suddenly find themselves condemned, while those who perhaps did not meet Christ in their earthly life (‘when did we see Thee?’) but were merciful towards their neighbor, will be saved. In this parable, the King does not ask people about matters of belief, doctrine and religious practice. He does not ask them whether they went to church, kept the fasts, or prayed for long time: He only asks them how they treated His ‘brethren’. The main criteria of the Judgment are therefore the acts of mercy performed or not performed by people during their earthly lives.
According to the teaching of the Church, the Last Judgement will be universal: all people will undergo it, be they believers or non-believers, Christians or non-Christians. If Christians will be judged by the Gospel’s standards, pagans will be judged by the natural law which is ‘written in their hearts’ (Rom 2:15). Christians will take full responsibility for their deeds as those who ‘knew’ the will of God, while some non-Christians will be treated less strictly for they did not know God or His will. The Judgment will ‘begin with the household of the Lord’ (1 Pet 4:17), that is, with the Church and its members, and not with those who did not meet Christ nor hear the message of the Gospel.
However, the Orthodox Tradition, consisting of both, the New Testament, and patristic writings, suggest that all people will appear with some experience of an encounter with Christ and His message, including those who did not meet Him in their earthly life. In particular, St. Peter speaks of Christ’s descent into Hell and His preaching there to those sinners who were drowned in the waters of the Flood: ‘For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you... through the resurrection of Jesus Christ...’ (1 Pet 3:18-21)
If Christ preached in Hell, was His message addressed to all people or only to the chosen ones? According to some church writers, Christ preached only to the Old Testament righteous who were in Hell waiting for Him. For others, the message of Christ was addressed to all people, including those who lived in paganism, outside the true faith. This view is expressed by Clement of Alexandria, who maintains that Christ preached not to the righteous who were to be saved, but to the sinners who were condemned for their evil actions. The sinners who were confined in Hell must have met the Lord in order to appear before Him at the Last Judgement.
Can there be an answer here to the complex question of whether or not there exists the possibility for non-Christians and non-believers to be saved? The Orthodox tradition has always asserted that there is no salvation outside Christ, Baptism and the Church. However, not everyone who during his earthly life did not meet Christ is deprived of the possibility of being liberated from Hell, for even in Hell the message of the Gospel is heard. Having created the human person with free will, God accepted responsibility for his salvation; and this salvation has been accomplished by Christ. A person who deliberately rejects Christ and His Gospel makes his choice for the devil and becomes himself guilty of his own condemnation: ‘...He who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God’ (John 3:18). But how can someone who has not heard the Gospel at all be condemned, someone born in a non-Christian country or who grew up in an atheist family? ‘Imagine that the Gospel was not proclaimed to those who died before Christ’s coming’, Clement of Alexandria says. ‘Then both their salvation and their condemnation is a matter of crying injustice’. In the same manner those who died after Christ’s coming but had not heard the Gospel’s message cannot be treated as if they deliberately rejected Him. This is why Christ preached in Hell in order that every human person created by Him would make a choice for good or evil, and in connection with this choice be either saved or condemned.