The topics of heaven, hell, purgatory, hades, life-after-death, the judgment, etc., are not among my favorites. There is a particular reason for this: everybody thinks they know more about this than they do and most people assume the Church says more about this than it does. Much of the problem, I think, lies in the fact that we torture the faith into geographical shapes, when it belongs in relational dynamics. That is to say, we think that describing heaven and hell (and other such terms) along with the rules for how they work (as places) somehow states something important and explains life-after-death. This is not only not true, but terribly misleading. It has also been a problem within Christianity for a very long time.
The debates between Protestant and Catholic, beginning in the 16th century, often centered on the rules for life-after-death (generally subsumed under the notion of how we are “saved”). That debate tended to press Christians into saying more and more about what they did not know, and forced institutions into hardened positions of dogma where no dogma belonged. Orthodoxy is neither Protestant nor Catholic, nor did it take part in the debates of those centuries. As a result, many things that are treated as hard and fast matters of assurance and dogma by Western Christians are simply not found in a definitive manner within the Orthodox faith.
Many modern Christians are completely taken by surprise when they discover that the early Church was relatively vague about such things when they are so carefully defined in modern traditions. For example, neither Protestants nor Catholics would ever think of praying for someone in hell. For them, however they understand hell, it is a matter of finality. For the Catholic, if you are suffering after death and it is not hell, then it is purgatory. For Protestants, you are either “saved,” and thus go to heaven, or “not saved,” and thus go to hell. No in between and no movement from one to the other. Again, these things are seen as hard and fast rules.
The Orthodox specifically pray for those in hell.
Saying that, it is necessary to say something about the word “hell.” Depending on the translator, the words “hades” and “hell” are frequently used interchangeably. Some, however, distinguish between “hades,” meaning “the place of the dead,” and “hell,” the place of final torment. Those who would press such meanings onto the prayers of the Church will find that “hades” frequently, and most often, contains the notion of torment as much as the word “hell.” For myself, I use them interchangeably for the simple reason that the terms are misunderstood when attached to some sort of geography of place – “this is hades and that is hell.” The point isn’t the place or its name, but loss of communion with God and the torments associated with it.
It would be surprising to most to see the messiness of the various ways in which heaven/hell, etc. are spoken about in the writings of the early Church. The New Testament itself does not have a careful, systematic understanding either. Indeed, “Gehenna,” a term used by Christ that seems to be an equivalent of “hell,” is not fully understood. You’ll find lots of knowledgeable explanations in various articles, all of which pretend to a precise knowledge that simply doesn’t exist. The term is found in Jewish writings dating back to the time of Christ, but is not treated as a place of eternal torments, per se. Careful parsing of the various terms seems almost beside the point when we see the variety of usage in Orthodox language. What the Church preaches is not a doctrine about places, but a doctrine of our relation and communion with God. If place-names are used, they are a matter of convenient imagery rather than a description of the topography of the larger world.
I will try to describe what I see in the prayers of our Orthodox faith. The point of all of our prayers is the salvation of everyone and everything. There is nothing beyond the reach of the Church’s prayers. This is true both in this life and the next. God is the God of all things, everywhere and at all times, and we can ask for anything of Him and make intercessions with boldness, trusting that He is good and that He wills good for us and for all.
For the departed, we pray that their “sins might be forgiven” and that their rest might be in “Abraham’s bosom, a place of refreshment, a place of repose, etc.” This is language drawn from various places in Scripture and elsewhere and is meant to say that we pray that all will be well with them in their eternal relation to God and all others. “May their rest be in paradise,” carries the same meaning.
Even at the funeral of the greatest saint, the Church prays the same prayers: for the forgiveness of their sins and their eternal rest. As the prayer says, “For there is no one who lives and does not sin.” The Church does not make a judgment about the salvation of anyone – that belongs only to God. We do not say that this one is saved and that one is not. When, at certain times, the Church declares someone to be a saint, we are only saying that God has shown us, over time, that this person is with Him, and that their prayers may be sought for our help, etc. We do not “make them saints.” Saints are revealed, not created.
At the funeral of the greatest sinner, the Church would make the same prayers, and they are entirely appropriate. It is true that, in the Tradition, a distinction is made about funerals within the Church (normally, the non-Orthodox are not buried from the Church). But the worst Orthodox sinner would still be buried from the Church as would the greatest saint, with the same prayers.
In that service, there is a particular prayer that should be noted. It is an authoritative act of forgiveness:
May the Lord Jesus Christ, our God, Who gave His divine commandments to His holy disciples and apostles, that they should bind and loose the sins of the fallen, (and we, in turn, have received authority to do the same), forgive you, my spiritual child, whatever transgressions you have committed in life, voluntary or involuntary. And if Your servant has fallen under a curse of (his, her,) father, or mother, or under (his, her,) own anathema; or if (he, she) provoked one of the priests and received from him an unbreakable bond; or if (he, she) incurred excommunication by a bishop, and through indifference and thoughtlessness did not receive forgiveness, forgive (him, her,) Lord, through me, a sinner and Your unworthy servant. This we ask through the intercessions of Your most pure and ever-virgin Mother, and of all Your saints.
I have particularly appreciated the mentioning of our “indifference” or “thoughtlessness.” It is a prayer that illustrates the mercy of God.
And for the non-Orthodox, there are prayers. Though they are not buried from the Church, a priest may still bury them, and we are not told to be shy in our prayers for them. There is a wonderful set of prayers for the departed, the Akathist for the Repose of the Departed, that may be prayed anywhere, and particularly in our private homes. An excerpt illustrates its boldness and trust in God’s mercy:
O Father of all consolation, You brighten with the sun, delight with fruits, and gladden with the beauty of the world both Your friends and enemies. We believe that even beyond the grave Your loving-kindness, which is merciful even to all rejected sinners, does not fail. We grieve for hardened and lawless blasphemers of holiness; O Lord, may Your saving and gracious will be over them. Have compassion upon those wounded by pernicious unbelief, and who have not known You here on earth, that they may know and love You in heaven; O Lord, forgive those who have died without repentance, and save those who have committed suicide in darkness of mind, that the flame of their impiety may be extinguished in the sea of Your Grace.
O Lord of unutterable love, remember Your servants who have fallen asleep!
Terrible is the darkness of a soul separated from God, the torments of conscience, the gnashing of teeth, the unquenchable fire and the undying worm. I tremble at such a fate and, as for myself, I pray: O you that suffer in hades, may our song descend upon you as a refreshing dew: Alleluia!
Your light, O Christ our God, has shone upon those that sit in darkness and the shadow of death, and those in hades, who are not mindful of You; having descended into the nethermost parts of the earth, bring out into joy those who have been separated from You by sin, but who have not renounced You; O Lord, Your children suffer, forgive them; for they have sinned against Heaven and before You, immeasurably serious are their sins, but also infinite is Your mercy. Visit the bitter destitution of souls far removed from You; O Lord, have mercy on those who hated the truth out of ignorance, let Your love be to them not a burning fire, but the cool delight of Paradise.
The last phrase within these prayers goes to the heart of the Orthodox understanding of hell (hades), and heaven, etc. “Let Your love be to them not a burning fire, but the cool delight of Paradise.” There is no doubt, whatsoever, that everyone is met with the love of God. That is simply the final state of all the departed: they are in the love of God. How that love is experienced is the matter in doubt. It is wrong, I think, to describe this as mere subjectivity, for subjectivity and objectivity belong to this world and not to that one.
The old debates of Catholic and Protestant have created a spiritual habit of thinking of all of these things in terms of places and rules and a near mechanical dynamic. Its importation into Orthodoxy is, to my mind, a diluting of the faith and a distraction from the fullness of the Tradition. It teaches us to think and pray in a non-Orthodox manner.
Instead, we pray. Prayer is the consistent and unending response of the Orthodox believer to the death of anyone. We trust in God who is our salvation. Jesus has revealed to us the love of God and done everything that is necessary for the salvation of the whole world. There is nothing lacking. Our prayers do not add to what Christ has done. Rather, they unite our hearts to what He has done and offer to God, with groaning, the prayer of Christ for all: “Forgive them.” If this is not the prayer of our heart, then our heart has become estranged from God, at least in that matter.
But our hope is not in places, nor in mechanical operations of salvation. Our hope is in Christ who has done all that we could possibly ask or think. When we pray, our thoughts should be towards Him, and the infinite goodness of His mercy. The priest stands at the altar, and the people join Him in the union of their lifted hearts. He presents the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, made present on the altar in the Body and Blood of Christ and prays, “On behalf of all and for all.”
This should inform and overshadow all conversations about our life in Christ. Everything else tends to be distraction.