The intermediate state of the soul


It might seem that the Orthodox Church must have entirely closed all discussion of the intermediate state of the soul after death. Surely the patristic and liturgical texts are so filled with settled opinion that there is no scope for confusion or controversy? Nevertheless, from time to time, there are variant teachings which become current, and there are always heterodox views outside of Orthodoxy which must be countered. At the present time there are those who wish to describe the Orthodox Christian belief in the continuing and conscious existence of the soul as a remnant of paganism which should be eradicated. There are others who wish to reduce the soul to the neurological mechanism of the brain and who consider the teachings about an immortal soul to be superstition. Others have adopted the opinion that the soul must be dormant and insensate or asleep if it is separated from the body. Views such as these must be resisted and rejected. We should always be able to give a reason for our faith, and no less in regard to that which the Church teaches about the soul after death. If the Church does speak with a clear, but humble, voice on this matter then it is necessary for us to apprehend and understand what is taught us, receiving it not for the sake of curiosity, but to inspire us with hope and to encourage us in perseverance. It has been a constant comfort to faithful Orthodox Christians to believe that the souls of their departed brothers and sisters in Christ are at rest and in a state of conscious awareness of the blessed place into which they have passed until the resurrection of the body. The Church has not allowed such a belief merely as a matter of folk religion or superstition, but bears witness to such a hope in the testimony of the great Fathers, and in the prayers of the various rites of all the Orthodox Traditions.

From the earliest times the Church has reflected on the condition into which the faithful Christian soul might pass after death. Not only has this always been a human consideration, but the Scriptures themselves seemed to offer certain hints and suggestions which the Fathers of the Church prayerfully made the subject of their reflections. Among those passages which were most often referred to in regard to the state of the soul after death was the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16. But there were also Old Testament texts, and expressions found in the Pauline corpus.

Clearly there is no explicit description of the state of the soul after death found in the Scriptures which might satisfy all enquiry. But as is the case with all Orthodox theological and spiritual enquiry, the Scriptures provide certain principles which set the boundaries for such investigation, and the experience of the life of Christ in the Church by the Holy Spirit provides the insight within the Church into the substance of what should be said. The teaching of the Church is the fruit of a spiritual and prayerful reflection which hesitates to go beyond that which is revealed by the Spirit. Therefore it would be mistaken to expect that all those questions which might ever be proposed are given a definite answer by the Church. But those things which it seems necessary and beneficial for the faithful Christian to know and reflect upon are revealed to the Church and by the Church.

How should the teaching of the Church concerning the intermediate state of the soul after death be explored? It is not enough simply to open the Scriptures and determine for ourselves how they should be understood. On the contrary, as members of the community of the Church we must read the Scriptures with the attested and proven Fathers of Church. Therefore the substance of this present investigation will consider the writings of the Fathers in turn as far as they are concerned with this issue. To a great extent this study will take the form of a florilegium, a collection of passages from the Fathers, since it is only by rooting ourselves in the teachings of the Fathers that we are preserved from error in our own understanding. The limitations of space require that this study concentrates on texts from only the first three centuries, though it is hoped that a comprehensive study will be possible in due course. In fact it is the testimonies of this early period which are most important since they reflect in varying degrees the Apostolic content of the Faith as it was received and passed on.

St Justin Martyr

We may begin with St Justin the Martyr. He was born in Samaria at the beginning of the second century and among those of his writings which have been preserved to us are two Apologies for the Christian faith and a Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. He found his way to Rome where he was martyred by beheading. In his defence of Christians before the Imperial power he did not intend to explain the details of the Christian Faith. His Apologies were not written as catechetical discourses, but simply to show the unreasonableness of persecuting Christians. Nevertheless there are of course descriptions of some aspects of the Faith, and in Chapter XVIII of his First Apology Justin writes about the soul. He says..

For reflect upon the end of each of the preceding kings, how they died the death common to all, which, if it issued in insensibility, would be a godsend to all the wicked. But since sensation remains to all who have ever lived, and eternal punishment is laid up (i.e., for the wicked), see that you do not neglect to be convinced, and to hold as your belief, that these things are true. For let even necromancy, and the divinations you practise by immaculate children, and the evoking of departed human souls, and those who are called among the magi, Dream-senders and Assistant-spirits (Familiars), and all that is done by those who are skilled in such matters —let these persuade you that even after death souls are in a state of sensation. ((First Apology of Justin Martyr. Ante-Nicene Christian Library. Vol I. p.168 New York 1913))

St Justin is speaking about the condition in which the dead find themselves and uses a variety of examples to show that he believes that even though separated from the body they are still both sensible and in a state of sensation in their souls. In the first case he speaks of wicked kings and that it would be a blessing to them if in death they were lacking in sensation. Secondly he addresses the use of necromancy, of contact with the dead, and even the sacrifice of infants whose souls were believed to be able to tell the future. Such abominations were performed because the souls of the departed are indeed ‘in a state of sensation’, as St Justin insists. Now it is certainly true that he was well educated in the philosophy of the Greeks, but there is no evidence that his views on the existence and sensate condition of the soul after death were ever questioned by those who followed him.

Nor is this the only reference to the continuing existence of the soul after death in the writings of St Justin Martyr. In the fragmentary work On the Resurrection he also says..

The resurrection is a resurrection of the flesh which died. For the spirit dies not; the soul is in the body, and without a soul it cannot live. The body, when the soul forsakes it, is not. For the body is the house of the soul; and the soul the house of the spirit. These three, in all those who cherish a sincere hope and unquestioning faith in God, will be saved.1

In this passage St Justin describes a tri-partite anthropology, that is, he speaks of spirit, soul and body. It is not clear how he wishes to understand the spirit and soul. But it is without doubt that he wishes to distinguish between the body and the conscious and spiritual element of man, and that he also wishes to show that this immaterial element is able to exist apart from the body, even while the body cannot exist without this immaterial element. According to Justin the body is not the soul, and the soul is not the spirit. For Justin the resurrection is a future and eschatological event in which the body and soul with spirit will be reunited. But this clearly presupposes that for a time they will be separated.

Likewise elsewhere in this same work he describes man as being composed of soul and body, and that the body without the soul is not man, and the soul without the body is not man, but that together with the soul the flesh has the promise of a bodily resurrection. This word promise has the sense that it must be something in the future, something which is not yet experienced and which will only be experienced after the soul has left the body at death.

Finally his Dialogue with Trypho provides some interesting comments on the state of the soul after death. At the beginning of the Dialogue he recounts a conversation he had while still a teacher of Greek philosophy, with an elderly Christian teacher who brought him to the point of conversion. This conversation may perhaps be considered both an epitome of those which he must have had with the early Christian community as he was converted, but also a reflection of his own mature understanding of the Christian Faith. He says..

But I do not say, indeed, that all souls die; for that were truly a piece of good fortune to the evil. What then? The souls of the pious remain in a better place, while those of the unjust and wicked are in a worse, waiting for the time of judgment. Thus some which have appeared worthy of God never die; but others are punished so long as God wills them to exist and to be punished.2

These are words placed in the mouth of the elderly Christian who instructs him, but we see that there is a similar concept in the First Apology where Justin suggests that wicked kings would be glad that the soul had no consciousness. In this passage we see that St Justin teaches us that not only are the souls of the departed conscious, and aware of the place in which they rest, both for good or punishment, but that these souls are waiting for a judgment after which some will never die while others will be punished as long as God wills.

In regard to the question of the state of the soul after death it seems clear that St Justin Martyr speaks consistently of the existence of the human soul without the body for some period, and that during this period in which there is a passage of time the soul is conscious and in a state of sensation. It is all the more important to take account of this testimony since it is both very ancient and is the teaching of one who lived at a time of martyrdom and was himself martyred. It was with this expectation of the sensible state of the soul awaiting the resurrection that the Church of this time faced death.

St Irenaeus of Lyons

The second Father to be considered is St Irenaeus. He was an inhabitant of Smyrna where he was a disciple of St Polycarp. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, had himself been a disciple of the Apostle John and therefore provided a direct line of tranmission of the Christian Tradition from the Apostles. In due course he himself became bishop of Lyons in Gaul where he was martyred at the end of the second century. Much of his efforts were spent in resisting the encroachments of the gnostic heresy of Valentinus and to this end he produced an extensive work known in the West as the Adversus Haereses. In this document he writes about the soul, and the intermediate state in which those who have died find themselves. In the first place he speaks of the descent of our Lord Jesus Christ to the souls who were in Hades at the time of His death, saying..

But the case was, that for three days He dwelt in the place where the dead were, as the prophet says concerning Him: “And the Lord remembered His dead saints who slept formerly in the land of sepulture; and He descended to them, to rescue and save them.” And the Lord Himself says, “As Jonas remained three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth.” Then also the apostle says, “But when He ascended, what is it but that He also descended into the lower parts of the earth?” This, too, David says when prophesying of Him, “And thou hast delivered my soul from the nethermost hell;” and on His rising again the third day, He said to Mary, who was the first to see and to worship Him, “Touch Me not, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to the disciples, and say unto them, I ascend unto My Father, and unto your Father.3

St Irenaeus is wanting to show that the process of resurrection included a period when the Lord Himself, as a human soul, descended into that place where the souls of the faithful saints of the Old Testament were found and was there in that place for a period of time. Clearly the saints were not embodied, and the Psalmist David prophesies of his soul being delivered from Hell. He continues in the same passage, saying..

For as the Lord “went away in the midst of the shadow of death,” where the souls of the dead were, yet afterwards arose in the body, and after the resurrection was taken up [into heaven], it is manifest that the souls of His disciples also, upon whose account the Lord underwent these things, shall go away into the invisible place allotted to them by God, and there remain until the resurrection, awaiting that event; then receiving their bodies, and rising in their entirety, that is bodily, just as the Lord arose, they shall come thus into the presence of God. “For no disciple is above the Master, but every one that is perfect shall be as his Master.” As our Master, therefore, did not at once depart, taking flight [to heaven], but awaited the time of His resurrection prescribed by the Father, which had been also shown forth through Jonas, and rising again after three days was taken up [to heaven]; so ought we also to await the time of our resurrection prescribed by God and foretold by the prophets, and so, rising, be taken up, as many as the Lord shall account worthy of this [privilege].4

We are to consider that our own process of entering into the resurrection life is to be an analogue of that process which Christ Himself followed. The Lord went to the place where the souls of the dead were, showing clearly that there are souls of the dead and that they repose in a certain place, and afterwards he arose in the body. Perhaps it might be said that this process only has meaning for the souls of those who departed this life before the incarnation, but Irenaeus addresses the case of the disciples of Christ. These also shall go to ‘an invisible place allotted to them by God, and there remain until the resurrection, awaiting that event; then receiving their bodies’.

What does this mean? It must surely indicate that St Irenaeus believes that the souls of men are able to exist apart from their bodies, not least because this is what is described in the case of Christ Himself. These souls are in a place, which indicates some sort of continuing integrity of being, though in a spiritual and invisible sense. In this place and state they ‘remain’ and ‘await’ which seems to be an indication of the passage of time, and the sensation of that passage of time. According to Irenaeus the resurrection of the body will only be experienced by these souls at the end of this period of waiting as disembodied, but apparently conscious, souls. There is no sense in the Scriptures, or in the words of Irenaeus, that Christ was without consciousness when he descended to the souls in hell, and following the same process as Christ it would seem that our souls will also wait, and waiting surely requires a degree of consciousness. It is necessary to note that Irenaeus considers it an error to suggest that after death Christ ascended immediately to Heaven, or that the faithful also proceed straight to Heaven without a period of waiting as souls.

Earlier in this same work against the gnostic heresies we find that Irenaeus speaks in rather a detailed manner about this intermediate state. He says..

The Lord has taught with very great fulness, that souls not only continue to exist, not by passing from body to body, but that they preserve the same form [in their separate state] as the body had to which they were adapted, and that they remember the deeds which they did in this state of existence, and from which they have now ceased,—in that narrative which is recorded respecting the rich man and that Lazarus who found repose in the bosom of Abraham. In this account He states that Dives knew Lazarus after death, and Abraham in like manner, and that each one of these persons continued in his own proper position, and that [Dives] requested Lazarus to be sent to relieve him—[Lazarus], on whom he did not [formerly] bestow even the crumbs [which fell] from his table. [He tells us] also of the answer given by Abraham, who was acquainted not only with what respected himself, but Dives also, and who enjoined those who did not wish to come into that place of torment to believe Moses and the prophets, and to receive the preaching of Him who was to rise again from the dead. By these things, then, it is plainly declared that souls continue to exist that they do not pass from body to body, that they possess the form of a man, so that they may be recognised, and retain the memory of things in this world; moreover, that the gift of prophecy was possessed by Abraham, and that each class [of souls] receives a habitation such as it has deserved, even before the judgment.5

This passage shows us certain features which Irenaeus, as the disciple of St Polycarp, and through him the disciple of St John the Apostle, wishes to insist are necessary aspects of the Christian Faith against the heresy of Valentinus. In the first place he states that souls continue to exist, which contradicts those who confound the soul with the mental activity of the brain and believe that the soul dies with the body. More than that, he states that the souls preserve in some manner the form of the body to which they were united, and the remembrance of those things which had been done in union with the body. There is, in the understanding of Irenaeus, an integrity about the soul which is retained after death, and this is not an unconscious but a conscious integrity.

Irenaeus considers the parable of Lazarus and Dives to represent reality, such that in this intermediate state souls may recognise each other, communicate with each other, and inhabit a place suitable for the existence of the disembodied soul and consistent with the just deserts of the life lived by each soul, ‘even before the judgement’, and before the resurrection of each person’s body. What is most interesting about these passages from the writings of St Irenaeus is that despite the very early period in which he lived and taught there are already present, and in a developed form, most of those aspects of the teaching of the Church about the intermediate state of the soul which are found in every age.

Athenagoras of Athens

While considering the witnesses of these first two Christian centuries it is necessary to note one of the minor figures who adds some substance to this comprehensive study, however small his contribution. Athenagoras was a convert from Greek philosophy and identified himself as an Athenian. He lived in the second century and died in about 190 AD. He provides a reflection on the continuing reality of the soul after death and in separation from the body, and it is in this regard that he is of interest at this point.

He speaks in his treatise on the Resurrection of the Dead about how the judgement of man must of necessity involve both the body and soul together, since it is only the body and soul which constitute man. But he also describes how after death the body is dissolved while the soul remains in existence according to its own nature. He says..

But if it is the end of both parts together, and this can be discovered neither while they are still living in the present state of existence through the numerous causes already mentioned, nor yet when the soul is in a state of separation, because the man cannot be said to exist when the body is dissolved, and indeed entirely scattered abroad, even though the soul continue by itself–it is absolutely necessary that the end of a man’s being should appear in some reconstitution of the two together, and of the same living being. And as this follows of necessity, there must by all means be a resurrection of the bodies which are dead, or even entirely dissolved, and the same men must be formed anew, since the law of nature ordains the end not absolutely, nor as the end of any men whatsoever, but of the same men who passed through the previous life; but it is impossible for the same men to be reconstituted unless the same bodies are restored to the same souls. But that the same soul should obtain the same body is impossible in any other way, and possible only by the resurrection; for if this takes place, an end befitting the nature of men follows also.6

Athenagoras is talking about what should be considered the end, or the purpose of the human life. He describes how it cannot be concluded that the end is found when the soul is in a state of separation from the body because the final state of man must be that in which the union of body and soul is reconstituted. It is at the resurrection that this end of man occurs since it is at the resurrection that the body is ‘formed anew’ and ‘restored to the same souls’. Now the important point of this passage is that Athenagoras understands that it is in the nature of the soul to be able to ‘continue by itself’ after the moment of death and even with the complete dissolution of the body. He does not fail to recognise that body and soul together constitute man, but he also understands that the immortal nature of the soul means that it must be understood to continue to exist throughout the period between death and the resurrection.

He adds to this argument by saying in the same document,

For either death is the entire extinction of life, the soul being dissolved and corrupted along with the body, or the soul remains by itself, incapable of dissolution, of dispersion, of corruption.7

Now clearly throughout this text he is insisting that death is not the end of life, indeed the title of the work concerned with showing that the resurrection is both possible and necessary. Therefore he is not offering the extinction of the soul as his own opinion, rather he is pointing out that the soul must remain by itself throughout the period after death and before the resurrection of the body, and its reunion with the same soul.

Early Acts of the Martyrs

Perhaps this brief consideration of the teaching of the Fathers of the Church in the first three centuries on this subject of the state of the soul after death might be best concluded with the evidence from the Acts of the Martyrs of this period. To a great extent the hope that the souls of the faithful departed were in a place of rest, where they consciously waited in a state of blessed anticipation for the resurrection, and where those others who departed this life in faith might also join them, was grounded in the real experience of persecution, violence and martyrdom which the early Church experienced. These were not curious and idle notions, but were serious and urgent matters. When dearly beloved bishops, priests and brethren were snatched away, those who remained required some understanding of what had happened to them.

St Cyprian of Carthage is one such example. He was bishop of Carthage in North Africa and in 258 AD was arrested during the persecution which had already seen the martyrdom of Pope Sixtus of Rome. We still have a collection of his letters, and in one of them he writes to a fellow bishop, Cornelius, who also faced death. He says..

Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides always pray for one another. Let us relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love, that if any one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go hence the first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brethren and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father’s mercy.8

Clearly St Cyprian considered that after the martyrdom of faithful Christians they would find themselves in the presence of the Lord, and would be in such a condition that they might continue to pray for those who were left behind. This would seem to require the conscious existence of the soul after death.

Much earlier, from about 155 AD we have the Martyrdom of Polycarp, which was composed by his disciples and the eye-witnesses of his death. This text says of St Polycarp..

Having by his endurance overcome the unrighteous ruler in the conflict and so received the crown of immortality, he rejoices in company with the Apostles and all righteous men, and glorifies the Almighty God and Father, and blesses our Lord Jesus Christ, the saviour of our souls and helmsman of our bodies and shepherd of the universal Church which is throughout the world.9

It would seem necessary that one who was considered to be rejoicing in the company of the Apostles and righteous men must also have a conscious existence as a soul, before the resurrection of the body.

Early Liturgical texts

The liturgies of St James and St Mark have been considered to be of great antiquity. The Greek Liturgy of Saint Mark, was translated into English in the last century by Neale. (1858) In his preface to the translation, Dr. Neale had this to say, “The general form and arrangement of this Liturgy may safely be attributed to the Evangelist himself, and to his immediate followers, S. Anianus, S. Abilius, and S. Credo.” As such, he was of the opinion that this ancient Liturgy together with the Liturgy of Saint James should be treated as, “writings which must ever rank in theological value next to the Holy Scriptures themselves.”10

In the Liturgy of St Mark there is found the prayer..

Remember, O Lord, the souls of Thy servants who have fallen asleep, our fathers and our brethren. Graciously, O Lord, repose all their souls in the bosom of our holy fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Sustain them in a green pasture, by the water of rest, in the Paradise of Joy; the place out of which grief, sorrow and groaning have fled away, in the light of Thy saints.

Raise up their bodies also, on the day which Thou hast appointed, according to Thy true promises, [which are] without lie. Grant them the good things of Thy promises; that which an eye has not seen nor ear heard, neither have come upon the heart of man; the things which Thou, O God, hast prepared for them that love Thine Holy Name.

For there is no death for Thy servants, but a departure; and if any negligence or heedlessness has overtaken them as men, since they were clothed in flesh and dwelt in this world, do Thou, O God, as a Good One, and a Lover of mankind, graciously forgive them. For none is pure from blemish even though his life on earth is a single day.

As for those, O Lord, whose souls Thou hast taken, repose them, and may they be worthy of the Kingdom of the heavens.

As for us all, grant us our Christian perfection that would be pleasing unto Thee, and give them, and us, a share and an inheritance with all Thy saints.11

A similar prayer may be found in the Liturgy of St James, which is considered of equal antiquity. Certainly there is evidence which suggests that elements of the Liturgy of St Mark were already in use in the late 2nd century. This prayer contains the teaching of the Church on the state of the soul after death. The prayer asks for repose of the souls in the Paradise of Joy which is identical to the bosom of our holy fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It then further asks for the resurrection of their bodies: Raise up their bodies also, on the day which Thou hast appointed, according to Thy true promises. It also recognizes that is a future event. Finally the prayers asks that they and us may be worthy of the Kingdom of the heavens, the final place of rest for the resurrected saints, identified to us in Revelation as the New Jerusalem.

The book of Revelation tells us of another place: the lake of fire (Re 19:20, 20:10, 14, 21) which is the final place of the resurrected wicked and unbeliever, together with the Devil and his angels. This is the same as the verlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels (Mt 25:41) This is sometimes called Gehenna.


What has this consideration of significant texts from the first three centuries shown? It seems to me that it provides clear evidence that the Church has from the beginning held those same views on the state of the soul after death which might be considered traditional in our own times. It does not appear at all that there was a great controversy over this matter, since fathers from the East and West, and from North Africa, were in agreement that after death the righteous soul found itself in a place of conscious blessedness until the resurrection of the body. If there were time and space then it could be shown that throughout the history of the Church this same view has always prevailed and been almost universally held. In the writings of the fathers, in their commentaries, in their homilies, and in the prayers and hymns of the Church this same view is found consistently such that it can honestly be said to be the settled opinion and teaching of the Orthodox Church.

That there are one or two writers who have questioned this tradition does not allow us to say that it is a matter of personal opinion and choice. Much less does it allow us to say that the Church allows a variety of opinions. It is possible to find one or two fathers in one or two places adopting different positions on one issue or another, but the voice of the Holy Spirit in the Church is found in the comprehensive manner in which the teaching on the continuing and conscious existence of the soul is held. It was not a matter of great controversy in this period because everyone held the same view. Indeed in the letter of St Cyprian to his brother bishop Cornelius which was considered earlier we see that in the most natural circumstance and language he asks that if his brother be martyred before him he will continue in that same love, concern and prayer as a soul with God which he practiced in the body.

In the study for this paper not a single Orthodox father was found in the first three centuries who questioned this description of the life of the soul after death. Even those Christian figures who are rather controversial for some of their views, such as Hippolytus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria and Origen, hold the same opinion about the state of the soul after death, which is that it has a continuing existence and is conscious.

The importance of these fathers and testimonies of the first three centuries is considerable. They bear witness to the Apostolic teaching itself, not least through the chain of discipleship which is represented by St John and his disciple St Polycarp, and his disciple St Irenaeus. The consistent belief of these figures, and all those others who have been referenced in this paper give us confidence to believe that the traditional and universal teaching of the Orthodox Church has not been corrupted at any time, nor is it in doubt. The souls of the departed have a continuing existence and are conscious of their state.

This is a matter of comfort to all who have lost those they love, and an encouragement to persevere in the Christian life. There is nothing to fear in death, because for those who belong to Christ there is only the passage to a place of blessed rest, and the company of the Apostles and righteous souls awaiting the resurrection.

Father Peter Farrington

  1. On the Resurrection. Ante-Nicene Christian Library. Vol I. p.298 New York 1913
  2. Dialogue with Trypho. Ante-Nicene Christian Library. Vol I. p.197 New York 1913
  3. Against Heresies Book V Chapter XXXI. Irenaeus. Ante-Nicene Christian Library. Vol I. p.560 New York 1913
  4. Against Heresies Book V Chapter XXXI. Irenaeus. Ante-Nicene Christian Library. Vol I. p.561 New York 1913
  5. Against Heresies Book II Chapter XXXIV. Irenaeus. Ante-Nicene Christian Library. Vol I. p.411 New York 1913
  6. On the Resurrection of the Dead. Athenagoras. Ante-Nicene Christian Library . Vol II. p. 149 New York 1913
  7. On the Resurrection of the Dead. Athenagoras. Ante-Nicene Christian Library . Vol II. p. 160 New York 1913
  8. The Epistles of Cyprian. LVI. Ante-Nicene Christian Library. Vol VIII. p.192 Edinburgh 1868
  9. Letter of the Smryneans or the Martyrdom of Polycarp. Translated by J.B. Lightfoot.
  10. Liturgy of St Mark, Introduction. Father Athanasius Iskander. 2004
  11. Liturgy of St Mark. Father Athanasius Iskander. 2004

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