The Rev. Stanley S. Harakas is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and is Archbishop lakovos Professor of Orthodox Theology Emeritus in the field of Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA. Fr. Harakas is the author of five pamphlets and fifteen books, both scholarly and popular, and over one hundred thirty published scholarly articles and book contributions. For twenty-one years (1980-2000), he was a weekly columnist in the national Greek-American newspaper, The Hellenic Chronicle. He is a beloved teacher to generations of Greek Orthodox Christians in America, thanks to his many years as a professor and his prolific writings.
There are many different answers to the question “What happens when we die?” Your doctor can describe in detail the physiological process of dying. A psychologist can tell you about the emotional aspects. Your lawyer would answer the question in terms of your will. And the local mortician has a quite different response.
The Orthodox Church also has a response, and since its perspective includes eternity, it is the most important answer.
Our death is inevitable. As the Bible says, “It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). That pretty well sums up the Church’s answer.
As Orthodox Christians, we were Baptized into the life in Christ and Chrismated with the gift of “the seal of the Holy Spirit.” As persons consecrated to God, we were given a calling to be faithful to God and to seek, in faith and life, to grow in a God-like way.
Eventually, our earthly life will end. We will all die. That means that we will “come to judgment.” Upon our death, we will experience “The Partial Judgment.” We will have a foretaste of our eternal destiny. If we have lived in communion with the Lord in this life, in the same measure, we will continue our communion with the Lord in the next life. If not, then we will experience the darkness and agony of separation from God forever.
Then, as the Creed says, “He (Jesus Christ) shall come again, to judge the living and the dead.” This is called “The General Judgment,” when all will be resurrected. Those who did not live in communion with God will experience that emptiness for eternity – Hell. Those who believed and sought to live a life reflecting God-likeness will be in the company of God and the saints forever – Heaven.
Our Savior Jesus Christ put it this way: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him” (John 3:36).
So you see, what will happen when we die depends on how we live our lives now. Seeking to grow toward God-likeness assures us of eternal life with God and His flock. Faithless living assures us of eternal separation from God and unending isolation from all that is good.
We can prepare for eternity. Saint Clement of Rome, writing in 97 A.D., instructs us: “Let us therefore earnestly strive to be found in the number of those that wait for Him, in order that we may share in His promised gifts. But how, beloved, shall this be done? Only if our understanding be fixed by faith on God’s rewards; if we earnestly seek the things which are pleasing and acceptable to Him; if we do the things which are in harmony with His blameless will; and if we follow the way of truth, casting away from us all unrighteousness and iniquity” (Epistle to the Corinthians, ch. 35).
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