Western Christians have long believed that the fate of the individual soul is sealed at death. Roman Catholics point to 2nd millennium dogmatic statements that assert, or at least imply, the irreversibility of the particular judgment (see the Catholic Encyclopedia). The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear:
1021 Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ. The New Testament speaks of judgment primarily in its aspect of the final encounter with Christ in his second coming, but also repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith. The parable of the poor man Lazarus and the words of Christ on the cross to the good thief, as well as other New Testament texts speak of a final destiny of the soul—a destiny which can be different for some and for others.
1022 Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven—through a purification or immediately,—or immediate and everlasting damnation.
Protestants appeal to various biblical verses that appear to support the eschatological finality of the particular judgment. Hebrews 9:27-28 is a popular text: “And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” Only until fairly recently have Protestant Christians begun to seriously entertain postmortem possibilities for redemption.
In contrast, Eastern Orthodoxy has been historically more restrained in its dogmatic pronouncements on the particular judgment, apparently willing to tolerate some measure of diversity. Like their Catholic and Protestant counterparts, though, most Orthodox theologians have believed that a change of personal will is impossible after death. On the Greek Orthodox of America website, for example, we find the following statement:
Now we face the question: What happens immediately after a person dies? Is there immediate judgment? Do we just sleep until the Second Coming of Jesus? What lies ahead for us the moment after we die? The Orthodox Church teaches that immediately after death a person is judged. He or she experiences a foretaste of the punishment or reward that will be received in its entirety at the Second Coming of Jesus. … Can there be anything like repentance after we die? The Orthodox Church teaches that the state of the soul at the Particular Judgment (immediately after death) is fixed and unchangeable, that is, there can be no moral improvement or repentance beyond the grave. The place for such improvement is in this life.
The wicked are eternally frozen in their hostility toward God; they have irrevocably exercised their fundamental option and are thus beyond even the help of their Creator (see “Is repentance possible after death?” and “Phantasmagoric Passion“). It might be argued that the liturgical prayers of the Church suggest otherwise, but that is a topic for another article.
As a Methodist believer, Jerry Walls does not consider himself bound to the dogmatic teaching of either the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Church. Scripture is the supreme authority, and he is not persuaded that it clearly excludes the possibility of postmortem repentance. If God truly wills the salvation of all, then there may be grounds for hope: “The same God whose mercy is such that he welcomes sincere repentance in the last moment of life is the God who would rejoice at the sincere repentance of a sinner after death” (Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, p. 205). As we have seen, Walls vigorously maintains the possibility of eternal self-exclusion from the communion of the Holy Trinity, yet he is equally emphatic that God provides optimal salvific grace to every human being. He thus refuses to arbitrarily restrict God’s search for sinners to this life alone. On what grounds, he asks, do we dogmatically declare that omnipotent Love cannot find a way into the hearts of at least some of the damned?
But to speak this way, the traditionalist objects, opens the door to universal salvation! “What would be so bad about that?” Walls replies. “And should not those who have been given much grace and opportunity be the first to wish the same for others?” (pp. 208-209). For Walls, the doctrine of eternal salvation is a contingent truth. He teaches it on the basis of the authority of Holy Scripture. But, he goes on to say, “I would be delighted if one of the things I have given the most energy defending in my career turned out to be false” (p. 209). How odd that so many Christians enthusiastically embrace the rhetoric of optimal grace and the boundless mercy of God yet draw back from their enthusiasm “when the logic of these claims leads to postmortem repentance” (p. 210). Like the Pharisees they are scandalized by the extravagant love of the Lord. I am reminded of a passage from That Man is You by Fr Louis Evely:
In one of his plays, Jean Anouilh describes the last judgment as he sees it.
The good are densely clustered at the gate of heaven, eager to march in, sure of their reserved seats, keyed up and bursting with impatience.
All at once, a rumor starts spreading:
“It seems He’s going to forgive those others, too!”
For a minute, everybody’s dumbfounded.
They look at one another in disbelief, gasping and sputtering,
“After all the trouble I went through!”
“If only I’d known this …”
“I just cannot get over it!”
Exasperated, they work themselves into a fury and start cursing God; and at that very instant they’re damned.
That was the final judgment, you see. They judged themselves, excommunicated themselves. (pp. 92-93)
C. S. Lewis famously wrote that “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” Yet it is the crucified and risen Lord who holds the keys to those doors. Dr Walls concludes his reflections with these encouraging words: “The God whose mercy endures forever is a God we may never hope tires of putting his keys in the lock and bidding those within to leave it behind, naming it purgatory as they turn their faces toward the gate of heaven” (p. 211).