Table of contents
Prayers for the Dead: PannikhidaBy Bishop Alexander (Mileant)
Translated by Nikolai and Natalie Semianko /Fr. Herman Ciuba
The fate of man after death
Death is the inevitable end of all organic life on earth, including human life. But from the Christian point of view, the death of a person is not a normal or necessary phenomenon. On the contrary, human death is the result of the disobedience of our first parents. God warned Adam about the fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: "For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Gen. 2:17). From Adam death was passed on to his descendants.
A man's death, however, is not the annihilation of his identity, but only the destruction of his physical shell. The words: "For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Gen. 3:19) refer to the human body. The soul of a person, as that which carries within itself the image and likeness of the Creator, is eternal: "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it" (Eccl. 12:7). After its separation from the body, the soul continues to think, feel and act, but in another world, one unlike our material world.
What, then, happens to a man's soul after its separation from the body? Man is given life in order to learn how to believe, to do good, and to develop his talents. All of these things make up his spiritual riches, or, in the words of the Saviour, his "treasure in heaven." Death sums up the life of a person, and his soul must then come before God for an accounting, to receive its reward or punishment. But the judgment which follows soon after death is not yet the final judgment, because only the soul is being judged, without the body. About the existence of this preliminary judgment the Apostle Paul wrote: "It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" (Heb. 9:27). At the end of the world, after the universal resurrection of the dead, there will be the universal Last Judgment, at which God will judge all people simultaneously. Then each person will receive either eternal reward or eternal punishment with his or her resurrected body.
Concerning the particular (i.e., individual) judgment, the Orthodox Church teaches:
"We believe that the souls of the dead enjoy blessedness or suffer torment according to their deeds. Upon being separated from their bodies, they immediately pass over either into happiness or into sorrow and grief; however, they do not experience complete bliss or complete torture. For each one will receive perfect happiness or complete torture after the general resurrection, when the soul will be joined to the body in which it lived, whether virtuously or sinfully" (Epistle of the Eastern Patriarchs concerning the Orthodox faith, article 18).
Thus, there exist two states after death: one for the souls of the righteous, in paradise; the other for the souls of sinners, in hell. (The Orthodox Church does not accept the Roman Catholic teaching about an intermediate state in Purgatory. The church fathers usually attribute the word "Gehenna" to the state after the Last Judgment, when both death and hell will be cast into a fiery lake, cf. Rev. 20:15).
While a person lives, God gives him the chance to repent and correct his shortcomings. After death, the possibility of repentance is removed. Still, if a person dies and is not deserving of paradise, this does not mean that he is doomed to eternal torment. Until the Last Judgment, the torments of sinners in hell are temporary and can be relieved or even removed by the prayers of believing people and the Church (Epistle of the Eastern Patriarchs, article 18). Prayers for the dead always benefit them. If they were not deemed worthy of heaven, these prayers alleviate their fate beyond the grave, and if they are in paradise, these prayers give them joy and an increase of light. We will now explain why prayers for the dead have such power.