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COPTIC DEATH AND AFTERLIFE 1: THE COPTIC UNDERSTANDING OF DEATH, INTERMEDIATE STATE AND LAST DAY

February 14, 2013

mummy portrait Figure 1: Fayum mummy portrait of a youth from Hawara; A.D. 80-100 (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
NYC).

How did he die? How did death present to him? Where did he (his soul) go after death? Where is he now? How is he doing? Is he resting in peace or is he being tormented? What will be his fate on the Last Day?

– all natural questions which Man has never stopped asking about his dead.

Man has a natural need to understand what happens at death and in the afterlife to his loved ones who have departed and ultimately to his own self. This perennial and universal question was asked by the Ancient Egyptians as it was asked later by their descendants the Copts. Our Pharaonic ancestors tried to answer the puzzle by referring to their pagan mythology; and Egyptians, once they became Christians, found a wealth of Judeo-Christian writings that can helped them in forming an idea about the destiny of Man at death and afterwards. Christian theology, in general, agrees that between death and the Last Day (Day of Judgement) when Christ returns, there is for every soul an intermediate state. Fringe Christian groups[1] believe that the soul of the dead goes into sleep in which the soul is unconscious until the day of resurrection of the bodies when Christ returns. Major Christian Churches,[2] however, believe that the soul – every soul – after death does not go into a state of coma but will be conscious; and after separating from the body (which remains in the grave to turn into dust until it is resurrected and reunited with the soul later) it will go to another place: the soul of the righteous (believer) will go to be with the Lord in Paradise; while the soul of the unrighteous (unbeliever) will go to a place of punishment may be until the Last Day. Those who go to Paradise to be with the Lord, it seems, are rare, and only great saints, such as the Virgin Mary, have been allocated that special treatment. The souls of most dead, who were believers, but had committed some sins in their lives from which they have not fully repented, will not go direct to Paradise but will be sent to Hades,[3] the abode of the dead, or the Tartarus of Hades, a deep gloomy part of Hades, according to Greek mythology, used as a dungeon, a pit, an abyss, which exists beneath the underworld, in which souls are purged and refined by tormenting and suffering to make them ready for a pass to Paradise, either before the Last Day or after it. This is what has become known in the Catholic Church as the Purgatory.[4] These souls in Hades, who undergo a process of purification, know their final place is to go to Paradise. This process can be cut short by prayers of the living community of the Church for the dead, and by succouring them through other means, such as giving alms. The intercession of saints who have departed, and presumably in Paradise with the Lord, is also influential in reducing the suffering of some of the souls in Hades.

The Copts have taken this broad understanding of death and the afterlife, which finds its basis in the Old and New Testaments. They, however, have peculiar vocabulary, concepts and imaginations of death and the afterlife, which are influenced to some extent by the mythology of their pagan forerunners. This is yet another example that there was no complete disconnect between the pagan culture of the Pharaohs and the Christian theology of the Copts, but a continuation of the old into the new when the new allows it. It is this, in addition to finding what Copts of the old really believed on Death, the Intermediate State and the Last Day – that one finds scattered in so many Coptic manuscripts – which we will try to study under this category.

Caution: This is not meant to be a theological treatise, which the author is incapable of dealing with – it is, however, a study of what Copts believed on the matter as revealed to us from what has remained of ancient manuscripts and documents.


[1] The Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and some evangelical Christians.

[2] Read the excellent general survey of the matter and the different positions of Christian Churches in the article by Richard P. Bucher, Where Does the Soul Go After Death? (Paradise or Soul Sleep)? Here.

[3] Hades is a Greek word that means the unseen place; the abode of the dead. When Jews and Christians translated the Bible to Greek, they used the word Hades for the Hebrew word Sheol: e.g. Acts 2:27 uses Hades for Sheol in Psalm 16:10.

[4] For the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, which is shared by Eastern Orthodox Churches, but not the Protestant Churches, go to the Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent, Purgatory.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Mina permalink
    February 14, 2013 4:52 am

    Looking forward to your series of articles on this subject. 🙂

    Just wanted to add it seems some Eastern Orthodox don’t really wish to be associated with the belief of “Purgatory” on account of its Western tradition of indulgences, venial and mortal sins, and the imagery it had. Of course technically, without these other issues, I agree there is technically no difference.

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