Is repentance possible after death for mortal sinners?

Roman Catholic theology has traditionally held that all who die in mortal sin are eternally condemned and beyond repentance. Thus the Catholic Catechism: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell'” (CCC 1033). The irreversibility of the personal orientation of the departed is affirmed in the Latin dogma of the particular judgment. Hence if we knew that a particular person had in fact died in mortal sin—and we cannot know this, apart from special revelation—it would be improper, and futile, for us to pray for the salvation of that person. The Catholic Church prays for those who exist in a purgatorial state, but it does not pray for those in hell (see “Prayers for the Dead“). The eternal destiny of the damned has already been decided; the judgment of God is irreversible. Hence when Catholics entertain the hope of universal salvation, they focus their attention on those few moments immediately before death. In the words of the Irish proverb: Bíonn grásta Dé idir an diallait agus an talamh (“The grace of God is found between the saddle and the ground”). Who knows what prayers the deceased may have offered to God in those final seconds and micro-seconds. Yet for precisely the same reason, universal salvation has been judged doubtful by most Christians. Too many wicked people die without evidencing any remorse or repentance. Surely Judas, Arius, Lenin, Hitler, and Pol Pot must be damned. Indeed, many theologians have opined that the majority of human beings will be lost (see Avery Cardinal Dulles, “The Population of Hell“).

The Orthodox Church, however, has never dogmatized the particular judgment nor the irreversibility of orientation established at death. Some Eastern theologians have doubted the possibility of post-mortem repentance. The great 7th century theologian St John of Damascus insisted that alteration of personal orientation is impossible after death: “For, just as there is no repentance for men after their death, so is there none for the angels after their fall” (On the Orthodox Faith II.5). Greek Orthodox theologian John Karmiris reiterates the Damascene’s view:

Death terminates the moral development of man; any further evolution is rendered impossible, and retribution begins. … After death, men are judged partially in a primary judgment conducted by God. This judgment has as its basis the faith of the individual, his appropriation of the Savior’s redemption, and his moral life as well. The soul, separated from its body, goes immediately, if good, into rest and blessedness; if bad, into affliction and grief in the so-called “middle situation.” In this situation, the soul experiences a foreview, a foretaste, and a foreknowledge of the full and complete retribution it yet awaits; be it enjoyment or damnation, blessedness or misfortune, prepared for them after the Last Judgment, only a relative blessedness or affliction being experienced in this middle situation. This applies as well to the saints and righteous, who “only perceive the blessings which await them,” according to Gregory of Nazianzus.

The souls in the middle situation possess full awareness and self-consciousness, but they remain “unchangeable” (unable to improve their condition), inasmuch as only during this present life, while we have access to grace through repentance, that we can be reconciled to God through Christ. After death, “there is no more opportunity for repentance” [John Damascene]. Thus it is that “this is the time of repentance; that will be the time of judgment” [John Damascene]. (A Synopsis of the Dogmatic Theology of the Orthodox Catholic Church, pp. 113-114)

Speaking for the Orthodox Church of the 15th century, St Mark of Ephesus taught that serious sinners cannot be saved after death, presumably because of their incorrigibility. Lesser sinners, however (i.e., those who died in faith with unconfessed venial sins on their soul or those who who died before demonstrating the fruits of repentance for their confessed sins), can be saved through the prayers of the Church (see Seraphim Rose, The Soul After Death, pp. 196-210). This appears to have been a widespread belief in the patristic Church, both East and West (see Brian Daley, The Hope of the Early Church). The revered Elder Cleopa Ilie of Romania taught a similar understanding in the late 20th century. On the one hand, the impenitent wicked are damned forever:

Truly, God is forgiving and long-suffering towards those who fall into sin in this life, for the time of our correction is now, in this life, and the acquisition of His forgiveness depends on our own repentance. In the life on the other side of the grave, however, we no longer are able to repent, to change our minds, given that there God does not judge us according to His omnipotence and goodness, but in accord with His impartiality and righteousness, rewarding each according to his deeds. If God were to forgive all the sins of men without justice or fairness, what would be the point of continually alarming us with the terror of the eternal torments if, in fact, they didn’t exist? How is it possible for God to tell us lies instead of the truth? … God offers eternal joy to the righteous, who struggled for a time to carry out good works here on earth, but as a just and righteous God, He also chastises eternally the ungodly that transgressed in this temporal life. Why is it so? Because the wounds incurred from sin that are not healed in this life through the appropriate repentance will remain infected eternally in the presence of God. … It must be clear that he who dies in grave and disastrous sins is separated from God forever and in particular will not be able, in the next life, to be amended. In the life beyond the grave his sins will remain with him eternally and thus the torments will also continue to exist forever. (The Truth of our Faith, pp. 215-217)

On the other hand, prayer for the departed is efficacious for those who have not “sinned unto death”:

It is indeed possible for someone to be redeemed from perdition, but not through the purgatorial fire as the Roman Catholics contend (their offering of expiation presented for the living and the dead notwithstanding). The Lord, as ruler of the heavens, the earth and the infernal regions has the power to remove a soul from Hades, as Scripture testifies: ‘The Lord killeth and maketh alive; He bringeth down to the grave and bringeth up.’

The power and sacrifice of Christ, which is offered to whosoever seeks it, is unlimited and His goodness so great that only He is able to rescind the eternal anguish of man. We know that God asks that we love our fellow man and looks on this love with joy. We we are truly praying for others, there is nothing greater than love. God hears the prayer of the Church very clearly, especially when the prayers of Christians are united with the suppliant voices of angels in the heavens, and that of the Lady Theotokos. …
Between Hades and Paradise there does exist a great chasm indeed, as our Lord has told us. Yet, this chasm does not have the power to impede the mercy of our great God, Who hears our prayers for the reposed. We do not suppose, as do the Roman Catholics, that there exists a purgatorial fire, but we say that only for those who sinned very severely (or mortally) and did not confess their sin is the passage from Hades to Paradise impossible. For those who sinned more lightly this pathway is not definitely closed, given that in the future judgment each one’s place, either in heaven or in hell, will be decided definitively, inasmuch as after this judgment someone whose orientation was Hades can no longer pass over into Paradise. For those who sinned unto death, our prayers are completely futile: “There is a sin unto death. I do not say that he should pray about it” [1 Jn 5:16]. However, the situation for the other souls, for whom we pray, as it is our duty, is not exactly the same. … We do not pray for those who have committed sins against the Holy Spirit, for such sins will not be forgiven, neither in this life, nor in the one to come. Rather, we pray for those who committed lighter sins for which forgiveness–when we pray–is also possible in the other world, inasmuch as we love them to inherit eternal life. (pp. 127-129)

Although it may appear that the positions of St John Damascene (and Karmires) and St Mark Eugenicus (and Elder Cleopa) conflict, I suspect that the conflict is in appearance only. Damascene of course believed in the efficacy of prayers for the departed (see “The Church’s Prayer for the Dead“). He would probably explain that those who are forgiven through these prayers did not need a conversion of will: they were already oriented toward God, however imperfectly. We will call this the classic Orthodox view.

Readers will immediately note the similarities between the Catholic and Orthodox positions, the key difference being the unfortunate dogmatization by the Catholic Church of the three-part schema—hell, purgatory, heaven. Why do I say unfortunate? Because it definitively excludes the possibility of repentance in the after-life for persons guilty of mortal sin. While some Eastern Christians might agree with this exclusion, the Orthodox Church has never dogmatically imposed it. The Church continues to pray for all the departed:

On this universal and salutary feast, deign to accept petitions for those imprisoned in Hades, thus giving us great hope, and relief to the departed from their grievous distress and Your comfort. Hear us, humble and pitiable, as we pray to You, and give rest to the souls of Your Servants who have departed this life, in a place of light, a place of renewed life, a joyous place, shunned alike by pain and sorrow and sighing. And place their spirits where the Righteous dwell, counting them worthy of peace and repose; for the dead do not praise You, Lord, nor do those in Hades dare to offer You glory, but it is we the living who bless and entreat You and offer You propitiatory prayers and sacrifices for their souls. (Pentecost Kneeling Prayers)

If the Church dares to pray for all the departed, dare we limit what God can do in the hearts of even the most wicked?

(Go to “Can Aslan Pierce our Infernal Deafness”)

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25 Responses to Is repentance possible after death for mortal sinners?

  1. Marc says:

    Despite the misguided opinions of more than a few saints from the Imperial period, the Church’s teaching on the Harrowing of Hades makes it quite clear that not only is repentance possible in the intermediate state, it is also highly probable (see 1 Peter 3:18-20 and the Resurrection Icon of the Church). The distortions of the Gospel that entered the Church in the early Imperial period due to the prevailing Platonic and pagan philosophies regarding natural immortality, led to further distortions by the clerical and government classes to control the masses. These traditions, like no salvation after death and eternal torment, are harmful baggage that need to be discarded to enable the Holy Apostolic Tradition to shine forth as a beacon of love and hope in the 21st Century.

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    • Agni Ashwin says:

      Platonists taught no salvation after death and eternal torment?

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      • Marc says:

        The Platonic belief in the natural immortality of the soul led to a rejection of the clear teaching of Scripture regarding the second death (see Revelation 20;14-15, Matthew 10:28 and John 3:16). This led to the Satan inspired concept of eternal torment that makes God out to be some sort of saddist.

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    • PJ says:

      As I understand it, resurrection icons do not depict the damned being rescued from hell, but rather venerable Old Testament saints freed from the gloom of Hades. And 1 Peter 3:18-20 speaks of this same “event.”

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      • Rhonda says:

        “resurrection icons do not depict the damned being rescued from hell, but rather venerable Old Testament saints freed from the gloom of Hades”

        Check out: http://orthodoxfiles.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/resurrection-icon.jpg

        I cannot speak for RC Resurrection icons, but this would be an inaccurate, or at least a very limited, understanding of Orthodox icons of the Resurrection, which are far more frequently call “The Harrowing of Hell”. For the Orthodox icons depict spiritual truth, not literal or historic truth.

        Most Orthodox icons show Christ freeing Adam & Eve (as representatives of all humanity) out of Hell, or more properly the grave (sin & death). The OT saints are depicted standing to Christ’s left & right, 2 kings with who I think is St. John the Forerunner (the Baptist) on Christ’s right with three OT prophets on His left. While it is not true with the icon I have linked to, many Resurrection icons also portray 1 figure remaining chained & bound. I do not know if this is the Devil or a depiction of a sinner who still refuses salvation in Christ.

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      • Marc says:

        The Orthodox icon of the Harrowing of Hades shows Christ standing on the destroyed gates of Hades raising Adam and Eve who represent all mankind. That the true Gospel was preached to all including the formerly disobedient is a strong indication that most if not all repented and entered Paradise.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        A good book to read on this subject is Christ the Conqueror of Hell by Met Hilarion Alfeyev. Alfeyev makes clear that the Eastern Church, expressed both in the witness of the Eastern Fathers and in her liturgical texts, does not restrict the preaching of Christ to the Old Testament saints: Christ brought the good news of resurrection to all who inhabited Hades. And 1 Peter 3:18-21 appears to explicitly state that our Lord preached especially to the unrepentant. This book is a real eye-opener.

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      • PJ says:

        “I do not know if this is the Devil or a depiction of a sinner who still refuses salvation in Christ.”

        I believe this is supposed to be Death, actually.

        My point regarding the icon was this: I don’t think that we can reach a conclusion about the reality of eternal punishment after the general resurrection based upon Christ’s descent into Hades. Firstly, this is a highly mysterious event, perhaps the most mysterious event in the entire economy of salvation. Secondly, Hades and Gehenna are radically different states of being. What was true of one might not be true of the other.

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      • PJ says:

        There is a wonderful homily in the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday regarding the Harrowing: http://www.vatican.va/spirit/documents/spirit_20010414_omelia-sabato-santo_en.html

        “The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

        ‘I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

        ‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.”

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  2. mary benton says:

    We must be careful not to make God too small. We want to know the “rules” because it is our human nature to want to understand and define things. God is not bound by this need of ours.

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  3. Dan S. says:

    A) I’m not really sure why the Roman Church dogmatized the final state of the soul upon death. Does someone have some information as to the history of that?

    B) I also don’t understand “why” it is not possible for the soul to repent after death. What is it about death that makes one’s orientation permanent and unchangeable. I am Roman Catholic, but I struggle to understand this.

    C) One other thing that I have noticed is that the Roman Church uses hell across the board while Orthodox writings make a distinction between hades, hell, lake of fire, and Gehenna. I have to wonder if that generalization (using hell (infernus), for everything, has “muddied the waters”, a bit. Does anyone have any insight into this?

    Thanks!

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Dan, in his book Eschatology Joseph Ratzinger discusses Pope Benedict’s papal bull Benedictus Deus, promulgated in 1336. In this bull Benedict declared that the faithful departed, who are not in need of further purification, are admitted into heaven and the vision of God. Ratzinger offers this interpretation:

      The papal text of 1336 implies in its teaching a certain distancing from the fathers. Yet in our evaluation we must not overlook the fact that its core assertion derives from christology, being in the last resort an interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s ascension in all its objectivity with a view to determining at the same time the meaning of Christ’s passion, disclosed in the ascension. According to this text, then, the Lord’s ascension is essentially an event of a kind which may be called “anthropological-historical.” It signifies that now, after Christ, there is no longer a closed heaven. Christ is in heaven: that is, God has opened himself to man, and man, when he passes through the gate of death as one justified, as someone who belongs to Christ and has been received by him, enters into the openness of God. (pp. 138-139)

      Ratzinger suggests that the dogma of the particular judgment thus represents the assimilation of the ideas of the intermediate state inherited from Judaism into the sphere of Christology. Later on Ratzinger explains that “If judgment is transformed by christology, then the eschatological boundary is crossed not just in death but well before that, in the act of faith itself” (p. 206).

      This does not adequately answer your question, I know, but perhaps it might help you as you reflect further on this dogma of the Catholic Church. I know that Ratzinger discusses elsewhere in the book on the fixing of personal orientation at death; but apparently I did not mark that. Hopefully other readers will be able to offer you more help about the Catholic position on the impossibility of repentance after death.

      I strongly recommend Ratzinger’s book to all Catholics and Orthodox who are interested in these matters. Consider this wonderful passage:

      Christ afflicts pure perdition on no one. In himself he is sheer salvation. Anyone who is with him has entered the space of deliverance and salvation. Perdition is not imposed by him, but comes to be wherever a person distances himself from Christ. It comes about whenever someone remains enclosed within himself. Christ’s word, the bearer of the offer of salvation, then lays bare the fact that the person who is lost has himself drawn the dividing line and separated himself from salvation. (pp. 205-206)

      So much for Western juridicism. Ratzinger’s understanding here is personalist through and through.

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    • PJ says:

      Dan,

      Please don’t call our Church the “Roman Church.” This is not only an inaccurate term, but it has derogatory connotations.

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      • Drew says:

        Fr. Aidan, you might enjoy this interview. Very informative involving two Christian philosophers on universal reconciliation.http://randalrauser.com/2013/05/when-it-comes-to-the-question-of-universal-salvation-an-interview-with-eric-reitan/

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Thank you, Drew, for this link. It’s a very helpful, and illuminating, interview with Reitan. I think St Isaac would approve! I just finished reading Reitan’s book God’s Final Victory a couple of weeks ago. Not an easy book to read, as it is written principally for fellow philosophers; but he and his co-author present a compelling case.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        PJ, given that Dan is Catholic, I’m sure he did not intend any derogatory connotations. “Roman Church” has a long and respectable history within the Catholic Church, up to the present. It typically refers to the Apostolic See or the Diocese of Rome. Hence Dan’s use of the term may be misleading, as I’m sure he intends to include all the Churches that are in communion with the Roman Church. The Magisterium of the Catholic Church is not restricted to the Bishop of Rome, though I suppose a lot of people have come to think of it that way.

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  4. PJ says:

    Oh, I know he didn’t mean anything offensive, and I recognize that the term has a proper use. But whenever I hear Catholics using the phrase to refer to the church universal, I ask them to reconsider, given that it has been hijacked by anti-Catholics who seek to reduce the entire communion to the pope.

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  5. Dan S. says:

    PJ, I didn’t mean Roman as in universal. I used the term Roman because of the Latin texts that translate all of the terms, Hades, Lake of Fire, Gehenna, as infernus without distinction. That’s really the only reason I used it, otherwise I would not have. I also see that too many say Roman Catholic as being synonymous with the entire Catholic Church. I hope that clears up my intent.

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  6. Isaac says:

    I know I am simplifying a complex issue, but it seems to me that if we can accept that God really does want all humans to be in communion with him then there is no reason why they would not be able to repent at any point as far as what he allows. I think the difficulties with universalism lie not with God (who wants all to be saved according to scripture) but on whether his creatures will all repent. George MacDonald implies in his writings that this will entail a very long and very painful process (see his novel Lilith for instance) for the worst of sinners, and I don’t think it is actually unreasonable to doubt that all would repent no matter what God did for them. It is easy for pro-universalism people to forget just how depraved and wicked humans can be. I’ve seen people in my own life hold on to hatred for others in a way that makes the monkey trap parable take on a dark and even nihilistic aspect. They would rather cling to their hatred than experience even a glimmer of joy. That is also why I still tend to side with the “hell is merely the same paradise for all humans but some of us don’t like it” view because it isn’t a stretch for me to believe that even if people are given an external heaven they will make it a hell for themselves. Imagine an old white racist who is stranded in his home in somewhere in the American South after a hurricane. Along comes a kindly black family. They try to look after him and love him. He would be in paradise, but his deep seated hatred makes all of their acts of kindness into torment for him. This doesn’t seem like a stretch to me at all.

    So I can certainly understand an argument that goes “once people are exposed to the glory of Christ they are effectively locked in to their wickedness and simply won’t repent” but I really don’t understand the ones that go “at a certain point God will say you are out of chances and now you are damned whether you would choose to repent or not.” Unfortunately the CC appears to have dogmatized the latter view.

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    • Marc says:

      Isaac, I am struck by the recurring admonitions throughout Scripture and some of the earliest Church writings that the choice is always between life and death. The soul continues to live beyond the death of the body not because it is naturally immortal, but because human beings are tripartite consisting of a spirit, soul, and body. When the body dies the soul remains alive because even though the spirit maybe dormant it is still alive. A spirit that is born again through repentance, experiences the first resurrection in the intermediate state or while still alive in the body. Those that are born again are in the Church, whether in Heavenly Jerusalem or on earth. The Last Judgment is the final opportunity for human beings to repent, and it is possible that all will. What we know is that the Lake of Fire, Gehenna, is prepared for the Satan and the demons, not human beings. It is very likely that this second death for human beings is indeed annihilation for them and the demons (see Ezekiel 28:13-19, Matthew 10:28, and John 3:16). We can hope for the salvation of all, but it remains to be seen. There is no reason to believe that Satan and the demons will not be annihilated based on what has actually been revealed to us. It is the fate of human beings that remains in question.

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  7. sorqaqtani says:

    Is sin possible after death for the redeemed?

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    • No. Everyone agrees that in heaven, once redeemed, always redeemed. (Sorry about the late reply. I guess I assumed that one of the other readers would reply to your question.)

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  8. John Sanidopoulos just posted this citation from Hieromonk Savvas the Athonite:

    1. In Hades there is no repentance.

    “In Hades there is no repentance” – this is a very basic teaching of Orthodoxy. If your spiritual eyes do not open from here, it will be impossible in the next life.

    It is not by coincidence that your eyes will be opened. You must do it, with the help of God of course. You do it with the Grace of God, not by yourself! But you must want to do it in this life.

    2. The Church is primarily for this life.

    The Church is for this life. There is a fallacy, unfortunately, among Orthodox that the Church prepares us for the other life.

    Wrong. It does not prepare us for the other life. It fixes us in this life, for this life, to open our eyes here and to enter the Kingdom of God here and now! In Paradise here and now! And if you do not find Paradise here and now, neither will you find it in the other life, because in the other life you will not be able to repent. There is no repentance in the other life: “In Hades there is no repentance”.

    3. The Church does not exist “so that all things may go well with us”.

    There are some who think that the Church exists so that things may go well for us in this life. The Church is not for this either. If we view the Orthodox Church in this way, then we see it as a superstition, and as a religion among other religions. Orthodoxy is not a religion. It is the revelation of God to man, with the purpose of healing the entire person, by healing the nous of man, his body and soul.

    I wonder if there is a difference between Greeks and Russians on this topic. With the exception of Met Kallistos Ware, I don’t think I’ve come across a Greek writer who is as open to the possibility of post-mortem repentance as Russians like Evdokimov, Bulgakov, and Met Hilarion Alfeyev.

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