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?