Word Magazine June 2001 Page 18
By Very Rev. Joseph Allen
When I first thought about writing a brief article on the “afterlife.” I declined on the basis that any such article cannot be “brief”! But I thought about this challenge, and began to wonder about an approach which could include the critical message for Orthodox Christian laity. Realizing the limitations of such an endeavor, I offer the following thoughts.
Theodore Dostoevsky’s emphasis that the human drama can only be understood and measured against the backdrop of “eternal life” may well be the most important fact we can learn about the “afterlife.”
Certainly the Eastern Orthodox Tradition would be more inclined to speak to these terms — those which lead us to focus on acts of mercy, faith, hope, love, social justice, etc. — rather than addressing the subject in mere mechanical terms.
Such mechanical concepts are used by humans all the time; we have a need to use images relative to this earthly life. Thus we hear about the “pearly gates.” We may wonder with whom we will be sharing our chicken dinner! We may hope that television will have more available channels!
But these and others like them show our utter limitation, our human bondage to our own material pleasure. Heaven, however, is not a place. Neither is hell. These are states of being, that is, a condition of being with God or not.
We will either be with Him in a state of union — what the Greek Fathers called kenosis — or not. The Orthodox Faith refers to this state as “communion,” or common union; oneness with God, and already in this life we can sacramentally begin participating in that union.
Yes, it is true that when death comes, the soul (psyche) and the body (soma) split, and the earthly life is no more. A human does not “have” a body, and does not “have” a soul; he or she is a body and soul, united in a composite whole, and kept alive by the Spirit of God.
Death breaks that wholeness. But although the body will return to the earth, from which God in the beginning created all of life, the soul will enter that state of being beyond all earthly and human dimensions.
In a natural movement, the soul still inclines toward the goal of its existence since it was created, and that is precisely toward union with its Creator. But reaching that destiny will be reserved for those who love the Lord.
For those who do not — and this will be shown in what Dostoevsky called “the human drama,” as acted out in the present world — they will continue to exist also, but their hell will be the absence of God. St. Isaac the Syrian described it this way:
“It is not right to say sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God. But love acts in two ways: joy to the blessed ones, sorrow to the renouncing ones.”
In perfect line with this, we are brought back to Dostoevsky, the “social scientist” of the Orthodox East, who said “What is hell? It is the absence of God!”
The “afterlife,” then, is not a city, a village, a park; it is a condition of life in which we will be with God or not. It is determined by our choice — and the acts to implement the choice — which we begin to make now, precisely in the human drama, as to whether we want it to be heaven or hell.