After death, what happens to us as Christians. We believe we will have resurrected bodies, but then what? To be frank, much of it is a mystery, but we have a long tradition of Christians who loved and studied the scriptures who have provided a sort of framework we can look to.
As I started to study orthodox Christianity, the questions of heaven and hell became even more clear to me. The Eastern Orthodox church doesn’t subscribe to heaven and hell as being places, but as being states. The Bible uses terms of location because that’s what we can understand, but where God is, there is no navigable space. Since we will be with God, we will be in the same state of being and resurrected into new bodies. Our reality will be tangible and fleshy but also singular with no outside dimensions. The God who fills all’s presence will be completely revealed to us.
One of my favorite church fathers, St. Isaac of Syria described heaven and hell both being in terms of God’s love. He says this on those experiencing “heaven”:
Paradise is the love of God, wherein is the enjoyment of all blessedness.
The person who lives in love reaps the fruit of life from God, and while yet in this world, even now breathes the air of the resurrection.
In love did God bring the world into existence; in love is God going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of the One who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.
Later, he has this to say about hell and how love affects both the faithful and unfaithful to God:
As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful.
St. Isaac shows that it is we who will still have the choice to accept or reject the love of God. The problem with rejecting the love of God is that it will be like rejecting air. You can’t escape it because it sustains and upholds your very life.
I’d like to include one more quote from George MacDonald. He was a great influencer of C.S. Lewis, and this is what he had to say about love:
Love is one, and love is changeless. For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds….Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed. And God is our consuming fire.
it’s important to note that there are other views of hell, where it is a total annihilation of soul and there’s also the theory of universal reconciliation, which I lean towards but not 100% completely.
So, if I may connect the dots here – death has been defeated by Jesus Christ. All of us who participate in the love and grace given to us through Christ’s death will find that after we pass from this life into the next, love will ever consume us, but we will be ready for it. For those who rejected it (whether in word or deed), there’s a strong chance they’ll be consumed by love, but they won’t find it pleasant. Jesus says as much in Matthew 8:12. What makes us ready is only the grace of God.
And lest we believe that “outer darkness” means that God is not present, don’t forget Psalms 139:8. There is no place that God is not. That is a terrifying thought, but also hopeful because if God will never leave us, even in the darkness, there’s a chance that He may continually be extending His love to the hardhearted into eternity. And maybe those hard hearts soften after time. May take several millennia, but it’s possible. Does that make me a universalist? I don’t necessarily think so. I think it makes me an optimist.
I still don’t fear death for myself, but I also don’t fear it for my family either. When I die, I know I have a right Judge who knows me and will do rightly with me. The same will be for my family. I am ready to die for Him today, tomorrow, forever.
Resources on the Orthodox understanding of death, heaven & hell:
Lecture by Fr. John Behr – The Final Frontier