Dear Fr Christopher, your blessing.
Some people claim that a deceased person's soul visits the places they
have lived when they were alive. This supposedly happens for 40 days
after their death. Is it true?
Answer to Question 63.
We do not know enough about what happens to the soul after the death of
the body. Christ gave us an insight with the story of the “Rich man and
the beggar man Lazarus, (Luke 16, 19-31) but this doesn’t tell us much
other than the belief that some souls after leaving the body will like
Lazarus be received by the angels and carried to Abraham's bosom and
others will find themselves in a place of torment.
There are various beliefs about what happens to the soul after leaving
the body and for the next 40days. Many of these beliefs have come to us
from the lives of various saints like St. Anthony the Great, St.
Macarius the Great, St. Theodora of Constantinople and St. Macarius of
According to the life of St Macarius of Alexandria, an angel accompanied
him in the desert who explained to him what happens to the soul
immediately after death and for the next 40days. The angel said that for
the first two days the soul enjoys relative freedom and can visit places
on earth which were dear to it, but on the third day, Christ, Who
Himself rose from the dead on the third day commands the Christian soul,
in imitation of His resurrection, to ascend to the Heavens to worship
the God of all. On this third day, it passes through legions of evil
spirits which obstruct its path and accuse it of various sins.
After worshipping God on the third day, the soul is then shown the
various pleasant habitations of the saints and the beauty of Paradise.
The soul considers all of this for six days, lost in wonder and
glorifying the Creator of all. After considering all the joys of the
righteous in the course of six days, it again is borne aloft by the
angels to worship God. And only after this for the remainder of the
forty days, is it shown the torments and horrors of hell, the various
parts of hell, and the diverse tortures of the wicked, in which the
souls of sinners ceaselessly wail and gnash their teeth, before being
assigned on the fortieth day to the place where it will await the
resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment.
Seeing that we know very little concerning life after death, I wouldn’t
like to comment on whether we are supposed to take these stories
literally or see in them something symbolic. What we can say for certain
is that these stories speak in an earthly language and mention earthly
days, which do not necessarily agree with heavenly time. Earthly time is
measured by change and motion. Its nature is to begin, to endure and to
have an end. Heaven and the angels, exist outside of earthly time. They
are not eternal, for they have a beginning, but have their existence ‘in
the age’ [aeon, αιώνι], which according to St. Maximus is motionless
time, for it remains without any change. If heavenly time is motionless
then there is no 3rd, 9th, and 40th day as we understand it here on
earth. These stories also speak of Paradise and Hell as particular
places, but the general teaching of the fathers is that we should not
think of these as physical places but rather as a state of the soul. We
use the terms Paradise and Hades to indicate a particular way of life,
since the righteous partake of the glory of God, while the sinners
receive the caustic energy of God. In the patristic tradition it is
clear that there are not two ways, but God Himself is Paradise for the
saints and God Himself is Hades for the sinners. God sends His grace to
all men, since “He makes His sun rise on the just and the unjust and
sends His rain on the evil and the good”. If God gives us a command to
love all people, even our enemies, He does the same Himself. It is
impossible for him not to love sinners as well. But each person feels
God's love differently, according to his spiritual condition. God is
light and light has two properties, illuminating and caustic. If one
person has good vision, he benefits from the illuminating property of
the sun, and he enjoys the whole creation. But if another person is
deprived of his eye, if he is without sight, then he feels the caustic
property of light. This is how it will be also for the life of the soul
after it leaves the body. God will also love the sinners, but they will
be unable to perceive this love as light. They will perceive it as fire,
since they will not have a spiritual eye and spiritual vision. Therefore
the same love of God, the same energy will fall upon all men, but it
will work differently.
I have sidetracked somewhat from your question which was whether a
deceased person's soul visits the places they have lived when they were
alive for forty days. Certainly the account found in the life of St.
Macarius of Alexandria supports the belief that souls can visit the
places where they lived even if this is only for 2 earthly days. I would
think that the 40days, certain people claim, has to do with Christ and
After his Resurrection from the dead, Christ appeared many times to his
disciples in the flesh up to the fortieth day when his human body then
ascended to heaven and sat on the right hand of the Father. As Christ
said: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up
his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24) some I suppose assume that we
also follow the same path and do not ascend spiritually until the
fortieth day and that all that time the soul is free to wander here and
there as it pleases.
I would say this is a gross misunderstanding of the Resurrection and the
Our Resurrection from the dead (meaning the resurrection of the body)
will not happen as it did with Christ on the third day. For this we must
wait until the Second Coming. If, as yet we have no resurrected body
then we cannot ascend as Christ ascended, but also because we do not
have to because Christ has ascended for all mankind.
What do I mean by this?
The ascension of Christ is his final physical departure from this world
after the Resurrection. It is the formal completion of his mission in
this world as the Messianic Saviour. It is his glorious return to the
Father after having accomplished the work the Father had sent him to do
(John 17:4-5). What was this work? It was to sanctify mankind and to
unite him with God. The ascension of Jesus Christ is the final act of
this work. The Son of God came “down from heaven” and now having
accomplished all things, he returns to the Father bearing for all
eternity the glorified humanity which he had assumed. (John 17). The
doctrinal meaning of the ascension is the glorification of human nature,
the reunion of man with God. This is what it is means when it says that
he sat on the right hand of God. Man has been restored to communion with
God, to a union which is, according to Orthodox doctrine, far greater
and more perfect than that given to man in his original creation.
Man was created with the potential to be a “partaker of the divine
nature”. This participation in divinity is what we Orthodox call theosis
or deification and this is what is understood by the “sitting on the
right hand”. It is a symbolic expression of man’s theosis and is not to
be understood in the literal sense that Christ sat on his Father’s hand
or that somewhere in heaven the body of Jesus is sitting on a material
throne next to the Father’s.
The meaning of the Ascension and the sitting on the right hand is the
realization of man’s foreordained destination, in other words his
deification. For the first time man is received into the heavens, not
just as a man, but as God-man, participating in the divinity of the
Father, or we can even dare to say – man becomes a God by grace.
The Church celebrates the Lord’s Ascension as an event where not only
Christ is glorified but humanity itself. Let us not forget that as God,
the Son came to earth and became a man without ever leaving the bosom of
the Father. The ascension into heaven is humanity which God glorified
With love in Christ