The Soul After Death by Father Seraphim Rose shares the Orthodox Christian position on what happens to human beings upon death. Father Seraphim reviews the teachings of saints to explain modern phenomena such as near-death experiences of those who have been revived after clinical death and also out-of-body experiences among psychedelic drug users. His book is critical reading for serious Christians, because if one were to subscribe to errant beliefs about death, and come to think that “everybody goes to heaven” or that “heaven is a state of mind, not a place,” it will start to negatively affect their spiritual life and may ultimately lead to eternal condemnation.
What is death?
Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov: “By the fall both the soul and body of man were changed. In the strict sense the fall was for them also a death. That which we see and call death is in essence only the separation of the soul from the body, both of which had already before this been put to death by an eternal death!”
Do you believe in a spiritual reality?
We who live on earth can hardly even begin to understand the reality of the spiritual world until we ourselves come to dwell in it. This is a process that begins now, in this life, but ends only in eternity, when we will behold “face to face” what we now see only “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12).
If you don’t believe in a spiritual reality then everything you do will be structured around pleasing your body and flesh until you die, and then when you die, none of that body-pleasing will be useful when you are fully aware and present in soul to be judged by God.
What can we learn from near-death experiences among heterodox and non-Christians?
…Dr. Kubler-Ross mentions one remarkable case where a blind person “saw” and later described everything clearly in the room where she “died,” although when she came back to life she was once again blind—a striking evidence that it is not the eye that sees (not the brain that thinks, for the mental faculties become quicker after death), but rather the soul that performs these actions through the physical organs as long as the body is alive, but by its own power when the body is dead.
It is characteristic of our times of unbelief that these people seldom use the Christian vocabulary or realize that it is their soul that has been set free from the body and now experiences everything; they are usually simply puzzled at the new state they find themselves in.
…most, perhaps indeed all, of [near-death] experiences have little in common with the Christian vision of heaven. These visions are not spiritual, but worldly. They are so quick, so easily attained, so common, so earthly in their imagery, that there can be no serious comparison of them with the true Christian visions of heaven in the past… Even the most “spiritual” thing about some of them—the feeling of the “presence” of Christ—persuades one more of the spiritual immaturity of those who experience it than of anything else. Rather than producing the profound awe, fear of God, and repentance which the authentic experience of God’s presence has evoked in Christians saints (of which St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus may be taken as a model—Acts 9:3-9), the present-day experiences produce something much more akin to the “comfort” and “peace” of the modern spiritistic and Pentecostal movements.
…[near-death experiences] may be said to “prove” no more than a minimum doctrine of the bare survival of the human soul outside the body, and of the bare existence of a non-material reality, while giving decisively no information on non-material reality, while giving decisively no information on the further state of even existence of the soul after the first few minutes of “death,” nor of the ultimate nature of the non-material realm.
What does it mean to see dead relatives?
St. Gregory the Great, in describing many of these experiences in Dialogues, explains the phenomenon of meeting others: “It frequently happens that a soul on the point of death recognizes those with whom it is to share the same eternal dwelling for equal blame or reward” (Dialogues, IV, 36). And specifically with regard to those who have led a righteous life, St. Gregory notes that “if often happens that the saints of heaven appear to the righteous at the hour of death in order to reassure them. And, with the vision of the heavenly company before their minds, they die without experiencing any fear of agony” (Dialogues, IV, 12).
These encounters, while they do not seem by any means to occur to everyone before death, still can be called universal in the sense that they occur without regard to nationalist, religion, or holiness of life.
…it must be that the dead relatives who are seen as not actually “present” as the dying believe them to be. St. Gregory the Great says only that the dying man “recognizes” people, whereas to the righteous “the saints of heaven appear”—a distinction which not merely indicates the different experience of the righteous and ordinary sinners when they die, but also is directly bound up with the different afterlife state of the saints and ordinary sinners. The saints have great freedom to intercede for the living and to come to their aid, whereas deceased sinners, save in very special cases, have no contact with the living.
…we need not doubt that the saints actually appear to the righteous at death, as is described in many Lives of Saints. To ordinary sinners, on the other hand, there are often apparitions of relatives, friends, or “gods” which correspond to what the dying either expect or are prepared to see. The exact nature of these latter apparitions it is probably impossible to define; they are certainly not mere hallucinations, but seem to be a part of the natural experience of death, a sign to the dying person (as it were) that he is about to enter a new realm where the laws of ordinary material reality no longer hold. There is nothing very extraordinary about this experience, which seems to hold constant for different times, places, and religions.
Applying discernment to near-death experiences
…we must clearly distinguish between genuine, grace-given visions of the other world, and a merely natural experience which, even though it may be outside the normal limits of human experience, is not in the least spiritual and tells us nothing about the actual reality of either the heaven or the hell of authentic Christian teaching.
One who is aware of this Orthodox teaching cannot but look in amazement and horror at the ease with which contemporary “Christians” trust the visions and apparitions which are now becoming so common. The reason for this credulity is clear: Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, cut off for centuries now from the Orthodox doctrine and practice of spiritual life, have lost all capability for clear discernment in the realm of spirits.
Those who are seeing “paradise” in the aerial realm today are “pleased,” “happy,” “satisfied”—seldom anything more; if they behold “Christ” in some form, it is only to indulge in the familiar “dialogues” with him that characterize experiences in the “charismatic” movement. The element of the Divine and of man’s awe before it, the fear of God, are absent in such experiences.
Demons will tempt you at the time of death and even right after
The Orthodox Lives of Saints have numerous accounts of… demonic spectacles which appear at the moment of death, usually with the aim of frightening the dying person and making him despair over his salvation.
The hour of death, then, is indeed a time of demonic temptation, and the “spiritual experiences” which people have at this time… are to be subjected to the same standard of Christian teaching as are any other “spiritual experiences.” Likewise, the “spirits” who may be encountered at this time are to be subjected to the universal test which the Apostle John expresses in the words: Test the spirits, whether they are of God, because many false prophets are gone out into the world (1 John 4:1).
It befits us, therefore, to be very suspicious (at the least) of the “beings of light” who seem to appear in the moment of death. They seem very much like demons posing as “angels of light” in order to seduce, not only the dying person himself, but even more those to whom he will later tell this tale if he is resuscitated (concerning the chances of which, of course, the demons are well aware).
The demons are not ignorant that people who are clinically dead may be revived, so it is profitable for them to give people a “peaceful” and “calm” vision so that, in the case they do come back to life, they will ecstatically share this vision to all, reinforcing the desired notion that everybody goes to heaven and spiritual labors are not necessary.
Also, don’t despair if you’re swarmed by imp-looking demons surrounding your deathbed. You may think that your judgment has arrived, but really it could be a final temptation by Satan for you to forsake God.
Demons provide a vision at death that corresponds to an individual’s beliefs
It is not necessary for us to define precisely the nature of the apparitions of the dying in order to see that they depend to some extent, as we have already seen on what the dying person expects or is prepared to see. Thus, Christians of past centuries who had a lively belief in hell, and whose conscience accused them in the end, often saw demons at death; Indians of today, who are certainly more “primitive” than Americans in their beliefs and understanding, often see beings that correspond to their still very real fears about the afterlife; while contemporary Americans, with their “enlightened” views, see apparitions in harmony with their “comfortable” life and beliefs, which in general do not include a very realistic fear of hell or awareness of demons.
On the objective side, the demons themselves offer temptations which accord with the spiritual state or expectations of those being tempted. For those who fear hell, the demons may appear in terrible forms in order to make a person die in a state of despair; but for those who do not believe in hell (or for Protestants who believe they are infallibly “saved” and therefore need not fear hell) the demons would naturally offer temptations in some other form that would not so clearly expose their evil intent. Likewise, even to a Christian struggler who has already suffered much, the demons may appear in such a way as to seduce him rather than frighten him.
The activity of demons
Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov: “The holy spirits avoid communion with men who are unworthy of such communion; while the fallen spirits, who have drawn us into their fall, have mingled with us and, so as the more easily to hold us in captivity, strive to make both themselves and their chains unnoticeable to us. And if they do reveal themselves, they do it in order to strengthen their dominion over us.”
Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov: “…the spirits who appear sensuously to men who are in a state of sinfulness and fall, are demons and not in the least holy angels. ‘A filthy soul,’ said St. Isaac the Syrian, ”does not enter the pure realm and is not joined to holy spirits’ (Homily 74). Holy angels appear only to holy men who have restored communion with God and with them by a holy life.”
Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov: “The fallen angels are dispersed in a multitude throughout the entire transparent immensity which we see above us. They do not cease to disturb all human societies and every person separately; there is no evil deed, no crime, of which they might not be instigators and participants; they incline and instruct men towards sin by all possible means. Your adversary the devil, says the holy Apostle Peter, walketh about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8), both during our earthly life and after the separation of the soul from the body. When the soul of a Christian, leaving its earthly dwelling, begins to strive through the aerial spaces towards the homeland on high, the demons stop it, strive to find in it a kinship with themselves, their sinfulness, their fall, and to drag it down to the hell prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41). They act thus by the right which they have acquired.”
The foolishness of seeking visions and spiritual experiences
Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov: “The desire to see spirits, curiosity to find out anything about them and from them, is a sign of the greatest foolishness and total ignorance of the Orthodox Church’s traditions concerning moral and active life. Knowledge of spirits is acquired quite differently than is supposed by the inexperienced and careless experimenter. Open communion with spirits for the inexperienced is the greatest misfortune, or serves as a source of the greatest misfortunes.”
Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov: “One who perceives spirits sensuously can easily be deceived to his own harm and perdition. If, on perceiving spirits, he shows trust or credulity towards them, he will unfailingly be deceived, he will unfailingly be attracted, he will unfailingly be sealed with the seal of deception, not understandable to the inexperienced, the seal of a frightful injury in his spirit; and further, the possibility of correction and salvation is often lost. This has happened with many, very many.”
Judgment after death
[Concerning] our redemption by Jesus Christ, [Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov says,] “all who have openly rejected the Redeemer comprise the inheritance of satan: their souls, after the separation from the body, descend straight to hell. But Christians who are inclined to sin are also unworthy of being immediately translated from earthly life to blessed eternity. Justice itself demands that these inclinations to sin, these betrayals of the Redeemer should be weighted and evaluated. A judging and distinguishing are required in order to define the degree of a Christian soul’s inclination to sin, in order to define what predominates in it—eternal life or eternal death. The unhypocritical Judgment of God awaits every Christian soul after its departure from the body, as the holy Apostle Paul has said: It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment (Heb. 9:27).”
What is certain is that there is a testing by demons, who appear in a frightful but human form, accuse the newly-departed of sins and literally try to seize the subtle body of the soul, which is grasped firmly by angels; and all this occurs in the air above us and can be seen by those whose eyes are open to spiritual reality.
In the Orthodox Church, the initial judgment after death is called the “particular judgment.” Prayers can help the dead who have not fared well in this judgment, changing their eternal fate. The final judgment occurs on the Last Day and is, as you may have guessed, final.
What exactly happens when you die?
St. Cyril: “What fear and trembling await you, O soul, in the day of death! You will see frightful, wild, cruel, unmerciful and shameful demons, like dark Ethiopians, standing before you. The very sight of them is worse than any torment. The soul, seeing them, becomes agitated, is disturbed, troubled, seeks to hide, hastens to the angels of God. The holy angels hold the soul; passing with them through the air and rising, it encounters the toll-houses which guard the path from earth to heaven, detaining the soul and hindering it from ascending further. Each toll-house tests the sins corresponding to it; each sin, each passion has its tax collectors and testers.”
As a sensuous or “natural” experience, therefore, it would seem that death is indeed pleasant. This pleasantness may be experienced equally by one whose conscience is clean before God, and by one who does not deeply believe in God or eternal life at all, and therefore has no awareness of how he may have displeased God during his lifetime. A “bad death” is experienced, as one writer has well said, only by “those who know that God exists, and yet have lived their lives as though He did not”—i.e., those whose consciences torment them and counteract by their pain the natural “pleasure” of physical death. The distinction between believers and unbelievers occurs, then, not at the moment of death itself, but later, at the Particular Judgment. The “pleasantness” of death may be real enough, but it has no necessary connection whatever with the eternal fate of the soul, which may well be one of torment.
In the contemporary experiences the soul is most frequently offered a choice to remain in “paradise” or go back to earth; while the genuine experience of heaven occurs not by the choice of man but only at the command of God, fulfilled by His angels. The common “out-of-body” experience of “paradise” in our days has no need of a guide because it takes place right here, in the air above us, still in this world; while the presence of the guiding angels is necessary if the experience takes place outside this world, in a different kind of reality, where the soul cannot go by itself. (This is not to say that demons cannot masquerade as “guiding angels” also, but they seldom seem to do so in today’s experiences.)
Secular people are hung up on the delayed inevitability of physical death, and cope by distracting themselves in this life with endless amusements and doctor visits, but it’s really the potential for spiritual death that we should focus our labors on.
Death experiences of the Saints
Saint Ignatius: “The great saints of God pass through the aerial guards of the dark powers with such great freedom because during earthly life they enter into uncompromising battle with them and, gaining the victory over them, acquire in the depths of their heart complete freedom from sin, become the temple and sanctuary of the Holy Spirit, making their rational dwelling-place inaccessible for the fallen angels.”
The aerial realm
The realm into which the soul immediately enters when it leaves the body and begins to lose contact with what we know as “material reality” (whether after death or in a simple “out-of-body” experience) is neither heaven nor hell, but an invisible realm close to earth which is variously called the “After-death” or “Bardo plane” (Tibetan Book of the Dead), the “world of spirits” (Swedenborg and spiritism), the “astral plane” (Theosophy and most of occultism), “Locale II” (Monroe)—or, in Orthodox language, the aerial world of the under-heaven where fallen spirits dwell and are active in deceiving men for their damnation. This is not the “other world” that awaits man after death, but only the invisible part of this world that man must pass through to reach the truly “other” world of heaven or hell. For those who have truly died, and are being conducted by angels out of earthly life, this is the realm where the Particular Judgment begins at the aerial “toll-houses,” where the spirits of the air reveal their real nature and their hostility towards mankind; for all others, it is a realm of demonic deception at the hands of these same spirits.
The beings contacted in this realm are always (or almost always) demons, whether they are invoked by mediumism or other occult practices, or encountered in “out-of-body” experiences. They are not angels, for these dwell in heaven and only pass through this realm as messengers of God. They are not the souls of the dead, for they dwell in heaven or hell and only pass through this realm immediately after death on their way to judgment for their actions in this life. Even those most adept in “out-of-body” experiences cannot remain in this realm for long without danger of permanent separation from the body (death)…
Almost all contemporary researchers accept or at least are highly sympathetic to the occult teaching regarding this realm, for the single reason that it is based on experience, which is also the basis of science. But “experience” in the material world is something quite different from “experience” in the aerial realm. The raw material being experienced and studied in the one case is morally “neutral,” and it can be studied objectively and verified by others; but in the other case the “raw material” is hidden, extremely difficult to grasp, and, in many cases, has a will of its own—a will to deceive the observer.
What is really going on with modern near-death experiences?
The passage through the toll-houses—which is a kind of touchstone of authentic after-death experience—is not described at all in today’s experiences, and the reason for this is not far to seek. From many signs—the absence of the angels who come for the soul, the absence of judgment, the frivolousness of many of the accounts, even the very shortness of the time involved (usually some five to ten minutes, compared with the several hours to several days in the incidents from saint’ Lives and other Orthodox sources)—it is clear that today’s experiences, although sometimes very striking and not explainable by any natural laws known to medical science, are not very profound. If these are actual experiences of death, then they involve only the very beginning of the soul’s after-death journey; they occur in the anteroom of death, as it were, before God’s decree for the soul has become final (manifested by the coming of the angels for the soul), while there is still a possibility for the soul to return to the body by natural means.
It is not precisely an “after-death” experience; it is rather the “out-of-body” experience which is only the antechamber to other much more extensive experiences, whether of death itself or of what is sometimes called “astral travelling”… Although the “out-of-body” state might be called the “first moment” of death—if death actually follows—it is a gross mistake to conclude from it anything whatever about the “after-death” state, unless it be the bare facts of the survival and consciousness of the soul after death, which hardly anyone who actually believes in the soul’s immortality denies in any case.
There is an aerial realm above us that we cannot see because our spiritual eyes are shut. This aerial realm is infested with demons. When you die, your soul launches into the aerial realm for a brief period, where the demons can influence you with various visions, until the holy angels come down to begin your trial of particular judgment. Many psychedelic drugs have the ability to put you in the aerial realm where what you see is almost certainly a demonic trick. Proof of this is the fact that very few psychedelic users interpret their “spiritual experiences” of the aerial realm in a way that steers them into the Orthodox Church. The vast majority fall back into a variety of pantheistic, gnostic, deistic, or New Age belief systems that are not sufficient for salvation.
It is pleasing for the soul to separate from a body corrupted with sins
Our physical bodies in this fallen world are bodies of pain, corruption, and death. When separated from this body, the soul is immediately in a state more “natural” to it, closer to the state God intends for it; for the resurrected “spiritual body” in which man will dwell in the Kingdom of Heaven has more in common with the soul than with the body we know on earth.
What will our resurrected body be like?
[The] resurrected body, like that of Christ Himself, will be different from our earthly bodies in that it will be more refined and more like the angelic nature, without which it could not dwell in the Heavenly Kingdom, where there is no death or corruption; but it will still be the same body, miraculously restored and made fit by God for eternal life, as Ezekiel saw in his vision of the “dry bones” (Ezek. 37:1-14).
Erroneous concepts of heaven
…many Christians, in order to escape the mockery and unbelievers and avoid even the slightest taint of any materialistic conception, have gone to an opposite extreme and declare that heaven is “nowhere.” Among Roman Catholics and Protestants there are sophisticated apologies which proclaim that heaven is “a state, not a place,” that “up” is only a metaphor, the Ascension of Christ (Luke 24:50-51, Acts 1:9-11) was not really an “ascension,” but only a change of state. The result of such apologies is that heaven and hell become very vague and indefinite conceptions, and the sense of their reality begins to disappear—with disastrous results for Christian life, because these are the very realities toward which our whole earthly life is directed.
The Christian after-death experiences all affirm the existence of heaven, hell, and judgment, of the need for repentance, struggle, and fear of losing one’s soul eternally; while the contemporary experiences, like those of shamans, pagan initiates, and mediums, seem to point to a “summerland” of pleasant experiences in the “other world,” where there is no judgment but only “growth,” and death is not to be feared but only welcome as a “friend” that introduces one to the pleasures of “life after death.”
What to do when someone you know dies
As soon as someone has reposed, immediately call or inform a priest, so he can read the “Prayers on the Departure of the Soul,” which are appointed to be read over all Orthodox Christians after death. Try, if it be possible to have the funeral in church and to have the Psalter read over the deceased until the funeral. The funeral need not be performed elaborately, but most definitely it should be complete, without abbreviations; think at this time not of yourself and your convenience, but of the deceased, with whom you are parting forever.
The spiritual world is merging with ours
St. Gregory the Dialogist: “As the present world approaches its end, the world of eternity looms nearer… The end of the world merges with the beginning of eternal life… The spiritual world is moving closer to us, manifesting itself through visions and revelations.” The end of this world’s existence began with the coming of Christ, and sensitive souls are always seeing how the other world is “breaking into” this world ahead of time and giving “hints” of its existence.”
The only way to heaven is through Lord Jesus Christ
The Church’s teaching is that whereas before our redemption by Christ, no one could pass through the air to heaven, the path being closed by demons, and all men went down to hell, now it has become possible for men to pass through the demons of the air, and their power now is restricted to men whose own sins convict them. In the same way, we know that even though Christ “destroyed the power of hell” (Kontakion of Pascha), any one of us can still fall into hell by rejecting salvation in Christ.
I see the toll-houses as a way for God to show you his just judgment. It’s a fair court trial with detailed evidence presented by your accusers—the demons—and defended competently by the holy angels. Whoever ends up in hell after the Last Judgment will have no doubt why they are there, and has no standing to whine that God is unfair or arbitrary. With The Soul After Death, Father Seraphim Rose did a commendable job revealing the doctrine of death and the importance of believing in the truth instead of vague modern notions that try to exalt death for everyone, regardless of what type of lives they had. (For a podcast adaption of the book, listen to Father John Valadez’s Soul After Death lecture series. For a more academic approach to this topic, try Jean-Claude Larchet’s Life After Death.)
One caveat is that, unless you are firmly on the path of Orthodoxy, you will feel notions of despair about the perceived difficulty of being saved, at least from the anecdotes that were shared involving mostly monks who were greatly tried at their final hour. I purposefully did not share any of the hard sayings since my audience is not solely Orthodox. I cannot recommend this book to those not in the Orthodox Church except for those who have had near-death or out-of-body experiences and have fallen into a “spiritual but not religious” trap that needs to be corrected. If you’re Orthodox, this is essential reading to understand the stakes at hand.
Learn More: The Soul After Death on Amazon