If the eschatological vision of St Isaac of Nineveh is to be fulfilled, then it must be possible for those who die outside of Christ Jesus to subsequently repent of their sins and turn to God in faith. But how might we think this through? St Isaac proclaims the mystery of the emptying of Gehenna and the unification of creation when God will be all in all, but how can this be possible? So many die without faith in Christ and his mercy. So many die in sin and iniquity. So many die with hearts possessed by hatred, greed, pride, and lust. Surely our present life is the time, the only time, for repentance. “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment,” the Scripture tells us (Heb 9:27).
Multiple Church authorities, Eastern and Western, tell us that repentance is impossible after death. There is no post-mortem penance. Our eternal destinies are irrevocably fixed. There is only the waiting for the final judgment and the resurrection of the dead. Some have speculated that once the soul has been separated from the body, it loses its capacity for new self-determinations. If in this life we were on a trajectory toward the light and love of God, so it will be for all eternity; but if we were on a trajectory toward darkness and self-absorption, so it will be …
One of the most terrifying scenes in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia occurs at the end of the The Last Battle. Aslan returns to re-create Narnia. But there is a group of dwarfs who seem to be trapped in their own little world:
“Aslan,” said Lucy through her tears, “could you—will you—do something for these poor Dwarfs?”
“Dearest,” said Aslan, “I will show you both what I can, and what I cannot, do.” He came close to the Dwarfs and gave a low growl: low, but it set all the air shaking. But the Dwarfs said to one another, “Hear that? That’s the gang at the other end of the stable. Trying to frighten us. They do it with a machine of some kind. Don’t take any notice. They won’t take us in again!”
Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had got a bit of an old turnip and third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised the golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said “Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.”
But soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarreling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot. But when at least they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding nose, they all said:
“Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”
“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”
The omnipotence of Aslan has reached its limit. His roar cannot pierce the self-generated deafness of the dwarfs. They have built a wall around themselves through which not even the divine Other can make his love known.
This is a powerful story in which, I believe, we can all find ourselves. We know the possibility of hell within our souls. We know how easy it is to live in delusion and bitterness and hatred. We know the power of the darkness. And yet … should we allow the story of the dwarfs to be the final word? Do we really have the power to so cordon off ourselves that not even the omnipotent Creator can roar his word and summon us to himself? Is divine Love really so impotent? Is the crucified and risen Christ so easily defeated?
Scripture itself provides the crucial hint that matters might be otherwise:
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 3:18-21)
After his death the eternal Son in his human soul invades hades and preaches the good news of salvation, not just to the righteous but to impenitent sinners. The Latin Church has traditionally restricted the rescue mission to the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets, but not so Orthodoxy (see Hilarion Alfeyev, “Christ the Conqueror of Hell“). After the Lord destroys the gates of hades, he preaches the gospel to all the departed—none are excluded—and extends to all the gift of his victory over death. Thus the Orthodox Church sings:
Our horrible death has been slain by your resurrection from the dead, for you appeared to those in hell, O Christ, and granted them life. (Sun.1. Mat. Can.O.9 [BB])
Hell was emptied and made helpless by the death of one man. (Sun.2. Mat. Can. O.6 [BB])
… who rose from the dead and emptied hell, wealthy before with many people (Sun.4 Mat. Sessional Hymn [EL])
Who now is not amazed, O Master, as they see death destroyed through suffering, corruption taking flight through the Cross, and hell emptied of its wealth through death. (Sun.8 Mat. Can. O.4 [EL-BB])
Going down to those in hell, Christ proclaimed the good tidings, saying: “Be of good courage, now I have conquered! I am the Resurrection; I will bring you up, abolishing the gates of death.” (St.3 GT Fes. StichLC [EC])
At present all is filled with light, heaven and earth and the netherworld.; let every creature celebrate the resurrection of Christ. (Paschal canon, third ode, first troparion)
Those who are held by the bonds of hell, in seeing your bounty, go towards the light, O Christ, on joyous feet, praising the eternal Pascha. (Paschal canon, fifth ode, first troparion)
Death gave up the dead it had swallowed, while hell’s reign, which brought corruption, was destroyed when you rose from the tomb, O Lord. (Sun.3 Mat. Can. O.4 [EL-BB])
Strange is your crucifixion and your descent into Hades, O Lover of mankind; for having despoiled it and gloriously raised with yourself as God those who were prisoners, you opened Paradise and bade it welcome them. (Sat.5 Gt. Ves. StichAp. [EL-BB])
Western Christianity does not grasp the radical significance of the Harrowing of Hell. During 25 years of preaching as an Episcopal priest, I do not think I preached on our Lord’s descent into hades even once. And then several years ago I read Met Hilarion’s book Christ the Conqueror of Hell, and Holy Saturday took on a very different meaning for me. Christ’s entrance into hades was not a one-time event, with no significance for anyone else. The gates of death have been broken, and hades is now filled with the presence of the glorified Son. In the words of St John Chrysostom: “This place of Hades, dark and joyless, had been eternally deprived of light; this is why the gates are called dark and invisible. They were truly dark until the Sun of righteousness descended, illumined it and made Hades Heaven. For where Christ is, there also is Heaven” (Homily on the Cemetary and the Cross; quoted in Alfeyev, p. 64).
Christ preached to the sinners of hades. Death was neither a barrier to their hearing the gospel nor to their repentance. We have no reason to believe that some, perhaps all, of the impious did not respond to our Lord in conversion and faith. How therefore can we dogmatically teach that there is no repentance after death? How therefore do we dare to declare the impotence of omnipotent Love?