Wednesday 7 August 2013

Four Christian views of what happens after death


In my (positively prejudiced!) explorations and practices of Mere Christianity - I have noted some sharp differences in the understanding of what happens immediately after death.

Here are brief accounts, necessarily simplistic:


1. The Protestant view seems to be that it is at or immediately after the moment of death when the soul is allocated to salvation or judgment.

After that point, nothing can be done to change its ultimate destiny - the final judgment may not be known at this exact point, but it is predestined.

The domain of salvation is restricted to the span of human life.The boundary between time and eternity is the moment of death, and the state of the soul at the moment of transition is therefore permanent and unalterable.

So prayers for the salvation of the dead are at best futile, and at worst a kind of blasphemy - because assuming that human intervention can affect what is between God and the soul of the departed.


2. The Eastern Orthodox view seems to be that there is a period of forty days following death during which the soul is evaluated - and during which prayers of the still living may affect this evaluation - then the soul is allocated by the first judgment (awaiting the final judgment).

The domain of salvation extends beyond human life - but is essentially time limited; after which the soul enters eternity, and does not change.

Consequently, prayers for the dead are regarded as necessary, and especially immediately after death.

(The salvific effectuality of later prayers is not ruled-out, but is much less clear.)


3. The Roman Catholic view seems to be complex, and I am not sure I have grasped it. After death, most Heaven bound souls require purgatory before Heaven.

There is a strong emphasis on the effectuality of prayers for the dead, but - unlike Orthodoxy - the timing of such prayers  is not critical, and prayer may be retroactive in its effects.

So, the soul is evaluated and purged, and during this process in linear time, the prayers of the living - past, present and future - are all brought to bear on the situation.

The domain of linear time seems to extend beyond the moment of death and to the end of purgatory, at least - which is not a fixed length of time, and perhaps linear time after death is not mapped onto linear time before death; after which the soul enters eternity and does not change.  


4. In Mormonism, death is a positive experience of transition to a potentially higher level of exaltation, and necessary to move to the next stage.

Any soul that will consent to be saved (and which has not implicitly rejected salvation by severe and unrepented sin) is evaluated and allocated to its proper place in a multi-level Heaven (or several Heavens); where the possibility of progression upward is open-ended.

In Mormon metaphysics, there is only linear and irreversible time, eternity is simply open ended linear sequential time; so there is no possibility of retroactive prayer being effective - but prayer for the dead may be effective in the sense that there is an 'ongoing process' that may be affected.


As the last comment describes, the differences are partly theological and ultimately metaphysical - concerned with time and the nature of eternity.

In some accounts the soul can change its salvific state after death, in other accounts the soul is fixed at death. 

And these differences have a large influence on the nature of Christian practice, and account for many of the most obvious differences between denominations.

For example, when I worship at a Protestant Anglican Church we never pray for the dead; while at Anglo-Catholic Churches we spend a lot of time in prayer for the dead, even in short Masses - and that difference is within a single denomination. 



dearieme said...

I can only tell you what happened when I died. I fell on top of my bike and the mechanical shock restarted my heart.
(That, at least, was the conclusion of the cardiologist.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - Sounds like a clear-cut case of divine intervention (I mean saving you - not the heart attack...).

Bruce B. said...

One thing I don’t understand in about Protestant theology is how and when we become clean so that we can enter into God’s presence. I assume that Protestants would agree that no one can enter into God’s presence while still sinful. Protestantism says that our sins are hidden or whitewashed over or not imputed to us. But when do we actually become actually and not just legally just/sinless so that we can enter into God’s presence? Is it the separation from the body or at least the earthly, unperfected body that causes this (in those that “make it in” because of their faith)?
I think Catholicism’s answer is purgatory.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - I think it is probably typical of Protestantism not to be specific about such matters - as they are not covered by scripture.

I think it would be fair to say that Protestants don't see this as a significant problem - the important thing is it was Christ who made us clean and fit to enter God's presence - and not how this is specifically achieved.

There is also an uncertainty about what happens to the soul between death and resurrection - I recall a sermon when it was *tentatively* suggested that a sleep of the soul was possible, so we would die and the first thing we would be aware of was resurrection. Again, the exact details were not regarded as important.

Agellius said...

Just to clarify, in Catholic doctrine once you die your eternal destiny is fixed. Purgatory, as you more or less convey, is for the purpose of purging you from inordinate temporal attachments and suffering the temporal punishments due to sin. But everyone in purgatory is absolutely assured of heaven, which is why some of the saints say that those in purgatory are infinitely happier than those of us on earth.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ag - I gather that in the RCC prayers for the dead are often to reduce the length or sufferings of the saved in purgatory - but it also seems to me that many prayers for the dead are for their salvation; and that the assumption is that the prayers of the living may affect the chances of salvation of the dead.

I'm not sure whether this is modern official doctrine - but it is a folk belief and has (apparently) been a major factor at certain times and places.

This was also, I think, a thread within Anglo-Catholicism - and it is very explicitly used by Charles Williams in Descent into Hell when retrospective prayer assists in the salvation of a martyr. Williams would not have regarded this as heretical or innovative, but a clarification of what was implicit in mainstream Christianity.

The prayers for the dead in the Anglo-Catholic church I used to attend frequently were certainly intended to assist their salvation, in terms of their phraseology - although the mechanism by which this might work was not explicit.

Wm Jas said...

Your description of the Mormon view is basically correct, but you miss some important points.

Souls are not assigned to a level of heaven (or to outer darkness) until after the resurrection of the body, which as a rule does not take place until the Second Coming (though some have already been resurrected). Between death and the resurrection, the spirit stays in the spirit world, which has two parts: paradise and prison, the latter being somewhat analogous to purgatory.

It is during the stay in the spirit world that "work for the dead" (baptism and other sacraments performed by the living on behalf of the dead) can have its effect, perhaps helping some spirits make the move from prison to paradise.

After the resurrection, the soul is judged and assigned to one of the three "kingdom of glory" (levels of heaven) or to outer darkness. The possibility of progressing from one kingdom to another is controversial; different Mormons have different opinions on this, but the most orthodox belief is probably that the final judgment is final and that only those who make it to the highest kingdom are capable of "eternal progression" and eventual theosis.

Bruce Charlton said...

WmJas - your expansion is welcome, but I wanted the post to focus on certain specific contrasts (rather than encapsulating the essence of each view).

"The possibility of progressing from one kingdom to another is controversial; different Mormons have different opinions on this, but the most orthodox belief is probably that the final judgment is final and that only those who make it to the highest kingdom are capable of "eternal progression" and eventual theosis."

This is pretty much new to me, although I can see it is compatible with the way that active Mormons *behave* which is probably more relevant than the theological and scriptural descriptions.

On the other hand there is a strong tradition that all is not lost for those who do not marry in mortal life hence fail to ascend to the highest kingdom - that they may marry in the afterlife and progress then. My feeling is that this latter idea is more in line with the tenor of Mormonism: that it is 'never too late' for the sincere seeker - the whole of eternity is available...

Similarly although I have seen arguments which suggest that according to the Mormon scheme people could descend levels as well as progress - I think this is contrary to the overall spirit of Mormonism - progression seems more like a ratchet that preserves every achieved advance but prevents backward slippage.

Agellius said...

"... it also seems to me that many prayers for the dead are for their salvation; and that the assumption is that the prayers of the living may affect the chances of salvation of the dead."

I won't argue with you but that's something I was never taught nor have I read it in any official source.

Chris said...

Regarding your response to Bruce B:
This is not something about which Protestantism is not specific. This is simply an area of doctrine that is usually ignored now due the general decline in doctrinal interest and knowledge among lay and clergy.

The issue that Bruce B has brought up is called "sanctification." There is a lot of disagreement on this topic between theologians of different denominations.