Inspired by this question and answers for it: what happens with a soul after one's death according to Eastern Orthodox doctrine? I'm interested in all variants.
OK I'm finally getting around to answering this question. Unfortunately I'm limited on time so this is a summary of the Orthodox position. First of all, Orthodoxy's entire anthropology differs from Western Christianity (no original guilt/concupiscence). As such, their soteriology doesn't begin in the same place as Western Christianity and thus concludes differently. Many Western Protestants emphasize "getting saved" so that you don't go to hell when you die. The emphasis often has more to do with avoiding hell than going to heaven. But even heaven is not the goal nor focal point of Orthodoxy.
The point is to become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4), being united with Christ and thus escaping corruption and death. As 1 Corinthians 15:22-28 says,
For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; then when Christ comes, those who belong to him. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he has brought to an end all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be eliminated is death. For he has put everything in subjection under his feet. But when it says “everything” has been put in subjection, it is clear that this does not include the one who put everything in subjection to him. And when all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.
And so our emphasis is on Christ's defeat of sin, death, and Satan - and that this victory means that one day "God will be all in all." In other words, there will be no way to escape from God's presence. "Heaven" is not some place up in the sky that hides us from the underworld. "Hell" is not a place and it is not the absence of God. This also means that dying and going to heaven isn't the end of the story nor is it the focus. Eastern Orthodox Christianity is about "life after life after death" (to borrow a phrase coined by N.T. Wright), i.e. life after the final judgment, after the bodily resurrection (the notion of a disembodied eternal existence in a purely spiritual heaven or becoming angels are Gnostic concepts). This is important because Orthodox do not think of hell as a "place," it's more of a metaphor or concept. Everyone will be in God's loving presence when they die, but for some that will be paradise and for others it will be torment. Much of the Western concepts of heaven and hell are derived more from pagan cultures than from the scriptures, which only used these existing cultural terms to hint at transcendent mysteries.
As to what happens after physical death (other than being in God's presence), no one really knows (this is freely admitted by most Orthodox scholars). The best we have is speculation and the "hints" we get in the Bible. As such, there are a variety of "theories" in Orthodoxy (but this speculation is often not helpful). But where everyone agrees is that we go to be in God's unfiltered presence.
A note about praying for the dead. Presently, when we die, we all go to be in God's presence until we await the final judgment and bodily resurrection. We believe that it may be possible for individuals to change their disposition towards God's love after death. This is not dogma, but we hold out hope for this. Since death is a defeated foe (it's just not annihilated yet), we also ask deceased saints to pray for us since they are now in God's presence and also mystically present with us in worship. After the final judgment, it will likely be too late to change one's disposition, but we hold out hope that all might come to know God's love as a wonderful thing for all eternity (see more on this here). I don't have time to elaborate on this much more here, and it wouldn't be entirely on topic anyways.
If you'd like to read more in depth about this, check out this article.
2This answer sums up what I love most about Eastern theology.– user5286Dec 2, 2013 at 3:31
Bounty given to celebrate day one of the 2013 Advent. Dec 12, 2013 at 6:10
Orthodox Tradition is made by saints, living temples of Holy Spirit. Many times, they let us testimonies for spiritual benefit of posteriority.
In 'Life of saint Basil the New' book, written by his disciple Gregory, is described what happened with the soul of Theodora after death, a widow who took care of the saint in her life. Her soul was judged passing through a series of tollbooths: slander, insult, lying, anger and rage, pride and arrogance, idle and obscene talk, usury and deceit, falsehood and vainglory, greed, drunkenness, grudge-bearing, sorcery, gluttony and epicurism, idolatry, sodomy and pedophilia, adultery, robbery, theft, fornication, mercilessness and cruelheartedness, sloth, stinginess, murder, heresy. Remarkable observation is that she passed all of them not by her own merits, but only just prayers of the saint Basil.
In the life of St. Anthony the Great (written by St. Athanasius the Great), he saw a vision of souls rising towards heaven and some being stopped by a large demon and cast down
Before die, saint Lazar, the Serbian Tsar, had a complete vision of the world, on the battlefield where his army was defeated by turks:
"In that instant, there simultaneously opened for Lazar both visions, the physical and the spiritual. And with both visions he gazed over the battlefield around him. And behold, how new and wondrous everything was! The faces of many of his soldiers, who had received communion yesterday at Samodreza, were as radiant as lighted candles. Around their heads shone halos of light, which were slightly elongated in four directions in the shape of crosses. Beside each of these faces thus illumined, there stood, as if suspended in air, a luminous, translucent man just like this heavenly herald, who was speaking with Lazar.
However, the Prince saw different faces also. These were warriors like the black earth. Behind their heads there loomed and stooped here and there some sort of monsters as black as tar. The Prince realized that the expression of these loathsome monsters corresponded to the black misdeeds and passions of the sinners against whom the monsters were pressing. He understood moreover that on this broad battlefield there was taking place not only a struggle of men but of spirits as well.
Hell and earth and heaven had converged in a dreadful clash. The roaring and the clanging, the screeches and the screams, the thunder and the clatter, the shouting and the death rattles the air was filled with all the sounds and noises that can be heard out of throats and nostrils, from hoofs of horses, from metal, from trumpets, from wooden staves, from bones and teeth, from the tightened skin on drums, from wind and rain. The stabbing with swords and spears, the shimmering of silver armor and the glistening of helmets and silver bridles, the fluttering of the green flags of the Asiatics and of the red and white cross-banners of the Christians, the white faces of the European soldiers, the dark-yellow Asiatics and the coal-black Africans, the snowy turbans and the bright red Turkish trousers, the blue and purple dolmans, the yellow and orange boots, the multicolored horses and dogs, the gray camels and the gray falcons. Will the human eye ever be filled with such a display of color from three continents?
The warriors lunged at each other, some with lightning in their eyes, the others with the pallor of a candle burning down. Horses reared with their teeth exposed by the tightened reins. Every soldier was thinking about how he would slay his enemy or defend himself. The faces of some were a book of horror, of others a book of fury, of others — a book of fright, of still others a book of pain, or of anxiety, or of hope but no feeling or passion was without the utmost tension and the culmination of its strength. One warrior with his eyes closed was expressing his pain with his mouth open. Another with clenched jaws was flashing his scorching wrath in his eyes. Yet another with the creases on his face was showing the mustering of the might of his entire being. Some were falling, struck by the mace of their adversary. Others were pulling arrows out of their body and were clenching their wounds with their hands to stop the bleeding alas, to what avail? In the confusion one soldier kills his closest companion. Another, knocked down, finds death beneath the hoofs of his horse, in which he had trusted as an ally. An arrow overtakes a battler as he flees, while another in the thickest part of the melee remains unscathed.
Neither physical vision could see nor could physical reason understand, why one thing was happening to one man and something else was happening to another. This fabric and rash of fate can be seen and comprehended only by that other, spiritual vision. Only in Lazar, among all the thousands of warriors, was this spiritual vision opened. And with this other mysterious vision Lazar watched and saw the battle of spirits over men. According to the light or the darkness of the soul of each soldier, either spirits of light or spirits of darkness were rushing up to him. Instantaneously each spirit recognized his own and was seizing his own. With a blow of their hand or a puff of air from their mouth, the mighty angels of heaven were beating the demons, who were like ravenous jackals, off the souls of the cross-bearing knights. But the beasts of hell, though trembling before those holy powers, treacherously flew at every human soul as soon as it would leave a warm body. With repulsive boasts they were snarling at the souls of sinners, and with their claws they were hurling them as with a fishhook with claws that reached to their elbows. But as soon as the angels would overtake them swinging their arm, they would scrunch those claws together into snakelike coils, and the demons would scratch themselves in a monstrous rage. Out of them there moreover came a certain smoke and stench, unknown to earth and to men. Both armies would have been smothered within an hour by that hellish stench, had the angels not annihilated it with the heavenly and vivifying ozone that fills their being.
So Lazar watched and saw, with honor and terror, how the angels would eventually permit the demons to have some black human soul. But the souls of the righteous they would shelter with their wings, and would take them and carry them up into the heavenly heights. Before his flight into heaven, each angel would turn to Amos and warmly greet him. For this was Amos' feast day. Lazar marveled at the great armies of heaven and hell, which were no smaller than the human armies on the battlefield. Their wrestling over the souls of men represented such a rapid and resolute struggle, that it has no parallel anywhere on earth except within man, in whom opposing thoughts are always at war." (http://tzarlazar.tripod.com/lazar09.htm)
Only holy tradition of Orthodoxy recorded many testimonies like these, giving the complete view that can be known about life before and after physical death.
2Thanks, definitely talks about Eastern Orthodoxy, +1. On the other hand, I expected more synthesis of beliefs (like what I have linked in my answer) than raw data such as this. When some evangelical gives me a couple of passages from Bible, I'm not happy, because without his interpretation I don't know exactly what he wanted to say. This is similar, visions like this give some basic clear message, but their deeper meaning is subject to interpretation, much like Bible. And btw., there are many testimonies like this in Western tradition too, just they're not so emphasized. Nov 25, 2012 at 18:18
I've searched some answer by myself, and here's what I've found. According to the linked document, both Paradise and hell are Christ's eternal presence, perceived as bliss by truly faithfull and as burning flames by the others. After death a soul leaves body and goes to Christ, where it experiences bliss (Paradise) or torment (hell). These states grow to fullness after the Final Judgement and ressurection of bodies, when the body is involved too.
Addendum: another find addressing the way to Paradise or hell! According to it the soul should be going through this world for two days, on the third day be tested by demons and then visit souls in heaven and paradise. Before the 40th day when the Temporal Judgement comes, the eternal fate of the soul can be changed by prayers of the living and of the saints in Paradise (but livings' prayers can be stronger).
I'm still waiting for a better answer, or at least for a comment saying that it's correct and there's not much to add. I know there are some experts in Eastern Orthodoxy, so if you know them, call them (or try yourselves)! Nov 24, 2012 at 12:45
the experts in Eastern Orthodoxy are the saints, temples of Holy Spirit, and Orthodox Tradition keeps their testimonies– IulianNov 25, 2012 at 15:43
I think this is a good answer. It should be noted that the second paragraph is more superstitious and not held by all Orthodox. You may find my response to a related question somewhat helpful: christianity.stackexchange.com/a/12287/1304– DanDec 21, 2012 at 18:25
@DanO'Day: your linked answer is even better than this one. No need to copy it here, just make an answer with this linked and summarize your linked answer (in respect to this question) and you have my +1 and acceptance. Jan 28, 2013 at 9:33
Yes but my related response doesn't totally answer this question. I didn't get into the Hades/hell distinction, superstitions which I do not hold but are held by many Orthodox (such as toll-houses), etc. I would think a comprehensive response would address all of this. I'll try to write one if I find time. I've still been meaning to post on a couple others also.– DanJan 29, 2013 at 15:22