Is Post-Mortem Repentance Possible for Mortal Sinners?

Tres_Riche_Heures_Purgatory_zps31d103b5.jpg~original.jpegRoman 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.'”1 The irre­versibility of the personal orientation of the departed is affirmed in the Latin dogma of the particular judgment.2 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.3 The eternal destiny of the damned has already been decided; the judgment of God is irreversible. For this reason, most Catholics have judged doubtful the salvation of every human being. Some, certainly, will be saved—but all? Preposter­ous! Too many wicked people die without evidencing any remorse or repen­tance. Surely Judas, Lenin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Ted Bundy, John Geoghan must be damned. Indeed, through the centuries preachers and theologians have opined that the majority of human beings will be lost.4

The Orthodox Church has never dogmatized the particular judgment nor the irreversibility of orientation established at death; but since the 6th century most Eastern theologians have doubted the possibility of post-mortem repentance. The 7th century monk St John of Damas­cus opined 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.”5 Theologian John Karmires 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.” Thus it is that “this is the time of repentance; that will be the time of judgment” [John Damas­cene].6

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.7 This appears to have been a wide­spread belief in the patristic Church, both East and West.8 The revered Elder Cleopa of Romania taught a similar understanding in the late 20th century. On the one hand, the impenitent 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.9

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.10

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. The Damascene of course believed in the efficacy of prayers for the departed.11 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 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 the Feast of Pentecost this prayer is offered at Great Vespers:

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.

In recent years Met Hilarion Alfeyev has emphatically affirmed the efficacy of prayer for the salvation of the damned:

Is it possible at all that the fate of a person can be changed after his death? Is death that border beyond which some unchangeable static existence comes? Does the development of the human person not stop after death?

On the one hand, it is impossible for one to actively repent in hell; it is impossible to rectify the evil deeds one committed by appropriate good works. However, it may be possible for one to repent through a ‘change of heart’, a review of one’s values. One of the testimonies to this is the rich man of the Gospel we have already mentioned. He realized the gravity of his situation as soon as found himself in hell. Indeed, if in his lifetime he was focused on earthly pursuits and forgot God, once in hell he realized that his only hope for salvation was God (Lk. 16:20-31). Besides, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, the fate of a person after death can be changed through the prayer of the Church. Thus, existence after death has its own dynamics. On the basis of what has been said above, we may say that after death the development of the human person does not cease, for existence after death is not a transfer from a dynamic into a static being, but rather continuation on a new level of that road which a person followed in his lifetime.12

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?

(12 May 2013; rev.)


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1033.

[2] “Particular Judgment,” Catholic Encyclopedia.

[3] “Prayers for the Dead,” Catholic Encyclopedia.

[4] See Avery Cardinal Dulles, “The Population of Hell.”

[5] John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith II.5.

[6] John Karmires, A Synopsis of the Dogmatic Theology of the Orthodox Catholic Church, pp. 113-114.

[7] See Seraphim Rose, The Soul After Death, pp. 196-210.

[8] See Brian Daley, The Hope of the Early Church.

[9] Elder Cleopa, The Truth of our Faith, pp. 215-217.

[10] Ibid., pp. 127-129.

[11] See “The Church’s Prayer for the Dead.”

[12] Hilarion Alfeyev, “The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions.” In his lecture “Orthodox Worship as a School of Theology,” Alfeyev reports that when he heard that the Coptic Church had removed from its service books all prayers for the damned, he queried a Coptic bishop about this decision. He was told that the change was made because according to official doctrine “no prayers can help those in hell.” Alfeyev replied that in “the liturgical practice of the Russian Orthodox Church and other local Orthodox Churches there are prayers for those held in hell, and that we believe in their saving power.”

(Go to “Dwarfs for the Dwarfs”)

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13 Responses to Is Post-Mortem Repentance Possible for Mortal Sinners?

  1. Christopher says:

    …But the Rich Man in Hades is very explicitly told he cannot go where Lazarus and Abraham are, and that they cannot even offer him the comfort he seeks. Perhaps his is a false repentance, a simple desire to not be where he is, but if we take his repentance as sincere, then it seems to be a case like Esau, whose repentance, we are told, while “he sought it carefully with tears”, was useless.

    Granted, that’s all difficult to square with the rest of the faith just anyways, but it’s something we have to wrestle with.


    • DBH says:

      The story of Dives and Lazarus has nothing to do with “hell” one way or another. It certainly has nothing to do with eschatological hopes or fears.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Pmyshkin says:

      But what if the point to this parable is Holy Saturday. Before hell’s harrowing the rich man’s conversion is stymied by the “chasm” that even Father Abraham could not bridge, but the God who “wert mad with love” could bridge this chasm. Once again we aren’t to be satisfied with the rich man’s fate; we are to desire with all our hearts his salvation. In that desire, that hope, if you will, we will seek possibilities, and will find only one. Jesus. And in that name we will remember that His Isness is nothing less than our salvation, so it will come as no surprise that St Catherine of Siena’s mystical vision shows Him as a bridge, and because we are looking for this we will know that the solution to the chasm is a bridge, and since the Bridge is a Shepherd who will leave not even one behind we might as well rejoice with the angels and call the rich man St Rich, for before Abraham was Jesus IS!


    • Grant says:

      Christopher, the Dives and Lazarus is a parable using a then common picture of the realm of Hades, not a revelation of the eschatological future judgement nor even some form of ‘intermediate’ state, it is a parable to illustrate or teach a point. It seems an obvious point to me yet people seem to keep losing sight of that fact and treating it as if Christ is revealing the nature of future judgement or the afterlife, I have to admit I find it a bit baffling personally.

      And the point with any parable in the Gospels is as with a punchline to a joke the lesson or meaning drawn from it and/or the situation it is applied to (otherwise we might as well think the kingdom of heaven really is a pearl we need to go searching for, absurd yes, but that is how many people treat this parable). Now in key to the parable lies in the group of Pharisees who loved money and the recognition of men to whom it was addressed in which Christ states directly it’s meaning in Luke 16:14-15:

      ‘Now all the Pharisees, being lovers of money, heard these things and sneered at Him. And He said to them, “You are the ones who are offering justifications of yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; because that which is lofty among men is an abomination before God”.’

      Here is the point, the parable is demonstrating this fact, revealing the perspective on heaven upon their state, that in the sight of God what they believe gives them worth and favour, and what they pin their desires on are worthless and in fact are in fact in deep and desperate poverty and darkness, and what they place their value in is hateful to God and doing them damage, this is further underlined by Lazarus having a name while the rich man does not. That they are blind and unable to see where the true the value and life is to be found, in those they despise the poor and in Christ before them. While you could take that there are implications of the nature of judgement from this lesson, in itself since Christ never applies it to the eschatological future, nor any post (or for that mater ante) mortem judgement it is nonsensical to take the parable out of it’s context in Luke and give it a meaning it is not intended for. In fact I believe quite firmly that this misuse of this parable in Christian history as been quite irresponsible and often, perhaps even deliberately at times, avoids the message it is actually giving.

      And as I’ve said before on this subject, I don’t believe anyone insists we must take this parable literally despite the meaning it is given, as an actual picture of future judgement and it’s nature actually really thinks this themselves. As if this is the case, then you have to take the whole parable literally, that includes then what it would illustrate would be the one and only criteria for salvation before God, which is to absolutely poor, have nothing, be homeless and starve. Lazarus is not said to be in comforted because he was righteous, repentant or turned to God, only because he had nothing. Therefore, for those who insist they take this literally, I’ll believe you, when you give everything you have to the poor and live on the streets, and advise the poor you give it too to do likewise (otherwise you are probably condemning them to eternal torment) and your loved one and so on. Ridiculous yes (not giving to the poor, you should do that, but the rest), but if they tell me that despite it’s context it must be taken as a teaching of eschatological judgement, well I’ll believe they really believe this (which I don’t) it when their practice what they preach. Instead they are just taking to bit (essentially what they want to paint as an eternal divide) and ignore the rest. Anyway, that is my experience.

      But as I said, it is a parable that as DBH says, has nothing to say about eschatelogical future nor even some ‘intermediate’ state, the Lord gives it’s meaning quite plainly.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Edward says:

    Nowhere in the parable does it state that the Rich man’s stay in Hades is eternal. Consider the words of Abraham to the rich man: “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” So, the rich man’s punishment is to experience some of what Lazarus experienced in his lifetime. But Lazarus’s experience of evil things was a finite one. It stands to reason that the rich man’s punishment , if it is to be a just recompense, must also be finite. Apparently, St. Ambrose held this position. The chasm that cannot be crossed brings to mind Jesus’s mention of the prison from which a sinner cannot escape “until he has paid the last farthing.” As for Esau, one should always read a story to its end. Jacob and Esau are finally reconciled. Indeed, Jacob says of his brother that seeing him is like seeing the face of God.


  3. Steven says:

    Another avenue for universal hope within the Roman Catholic theological schema, is re-evaluation of the nature of mortal sin. Some Catholic theologians and pastors believe the three classic conditions which constitute mortal sin, may in fact be far more difficult to fulfill than many have assumed, taking into account ongoing developments into psychology and the factors which exert themselves on our decision-making abilities. I think too, a view of freedom similar to DBH’s, that genuine moral freedom is only exercised in proportion to how much we orient toward God, plays into this viewpoint. There’s a nice little book called “Good Goats: Healing our Image of God” wherein the authors point out the three classic conditions for a sin to be mortal, more accurately describe the conditions that make actions virtuous rather than sinful. The point being, increase in the severity of depravity leads one into bondage such that committing truly mortal sin isn’t possible, due to the fact that the agency of freedom is too impaired to do so. And those who are theoretically most capable of mortal sin, are the ones least likely to do so. That leads to the speculative question of whether it’s possible to die in a state of genuine mortal sin, or if God in His mercy would prevent such a horrible scenario from happening even to the worst of sinners.


  4. mary says:

    Hi Fr. Aidan. Just stopping by for my episodic visit and commentary.

    When I read excerpts from the Catholic Catechism such as the one you included here, it moves me to want to repent – of being Catholic, that is. Although I am not seriously contemplating defecting from my Church, I fully agree that it is “unfortunate” that the Catholic Church “dogmatizes” this and so many other matters. I understand why people are driven to try to define the unknown. I just think there is need of humility when we cannot admit that there are things we cannot possibly know. One of the things I admire about Orthodoxy is its willingness to allow Mystery to be mysterious.

    And really, what business is it of mine what becomes of another when they die? If I pray for them to know the fullness of God’s presence and that is somehow not possible for them, I cannot imagine there being any negative repercussions for my having prayed it. If I have loved someone in this lifetime, I surely would hope for their best possible outcome for them. However, in the end, I must trust that God alone knows what is the “best” outcome for each soul.

    I think it is also a mistake to assume that by reading Scripture we have a comprehensive view of God’s options when it comes to greeting sinners who pass from this life. First, God alone knows the true level of culpability for each person’s misguided behaviors in this life. As we have come to know about biological and psychological predispositions toward negative behavior that were unknown to ancient Scripture scholars, we can only assume that there is still much more that we have not yet uncovered. It is truths such as these that lead me to disparage the whole notion of “mortal sin”. It is not that I am oblivious to the difference between grave sin and trivial sin but that I cannot possibly know which it is for another person and am often uncertain even for myself. Thinking of some act I committed decades ago when I had less knowledge and experience than I do now, I cannot know with any certainty the degree of my culpability back then. I only know that I must throw myself upon the mercy of God and trust that it will be enough for my poor soul.

    My sole concern should, of course, be my own soul and its ultimate disposition. Perhaps it is the fear of facing this that leads us to want to dogmatize the whole business. If we can just define the rules, then we can obey them and feel fairly certain of a good repose. But doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of the Gospel of love? Is the extent of my love for God and neighbor to be based on my fear of eternal punishment? Certainly that would be a cold love, if love at all. My love for God, though inevitably inadequate, should be a wild, all-consuming, ever-growing longing for union – and my failures cause for deep sorrow at having risked that ultimate union for the sake of some inconsequential and fleeting desires.

    If I believe that God’s wisdom and love are infinite beyond my imagining (and I do), then I must content myself with the understanding that He indeed knows how to deal with sinners at their varying levels of repentance (or non-repentance). Might there be a heaven and a hell, and even a purgatory? Surely, but I cannot really know what these terms mean in reality. Our human words cannot encompass God’s plan with any degree of accuracy. Scripture reveals to us that sin has grave consequences and that we are made for love, but the Jesus’ portrayals of these outcomes are not meant to be road maps that show us how to get to the 5 star destination and avoid the 1 star. For all we know, God may choose to send some souls back for another chance, in something resembling reincarnation. I am not saying that I believe this – more that I simply do not know and cannot know what God has in store for each and every soul.

    Accepting my unknowing is the best I can do. For if I imagine that I know, I will have tried to make myself God’s equal. And that, we know, is the original (and perpetual) sin of our species that we must strive at all costs to avoid.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. oliver elkington says:

    What does not make sense to me when it comes to the Catholic understanding of post mortem repentance is how random death seems to come and how pretty much any soul could be in a state of mortal sin at the moment of death, not have enough time to get to confession and as a result end up damned for eternity, many Catholics i have spoken to online and priests have simply said “well tough that is what you get after indulging in sin” what a horrible self righteous tone that is when most of us have indulged in sin at one moment or another, should we not feel sorry for those who were damned, especially when we may by the grace of God had been saved after going to confession and given the chance to repent before death.


    • Taking the concept of “baptism of desire” as a model…

      If the person who died would have gone to confession, there is also a “confession of desire” that might apply.

      Related, it seems to me that making an act of spiritual communion is a “Eucharist of desire.”


  6. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I am unclear where the assertion that those who have died in sin *cannot* repent post mortem actually comes from? Various explanations are put forward to justify how this might be the case, but they seem to be post hoc explanations for what is already assumed to be true. It is apparently the case that in the history of the church some have held that some will in fact never repent, and some have held that all will eventually do so. The idea that post mortem repentance is *impossible* seems to be derived from the need to square the assertion that some will be eternally damned with the mercy of God. Essentially the reasoning seems to go that if some are to be eternally damned, for this to be just it must be because they never repent, and it would again be unjust if they never repented because God didn’t want them to repent, so it must be *impossible* for them to repent, and so all sorts of reasons are dreamed up as to why this must be so.
    It seems to me though, that the consequence of this reasoning is that the desire to prop up by any means possible the popular but never in fact settled assumption that some may never be saved, is allowed to discredit or require to be explained away, or even abandoned, one of the oldest traditions of the church, that of prayers for the dead. This cannot be right.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. oliver elkington says:

    The Catholic Encyclopaedia actually acknowledged that God could possibly allow post mortem repentance but said that if he did so there would be a dramatic lowering of morals across the world as people suddenly lose their sense of duty towards their neighbour and live completely selfishly, somehow this does not seem to happen in societies where religion is at the back of peoples minds like Japan and Denmark, not to say that we don’t need religion to be moral but that God somehow ensures that people act morally whether they are religious or not.


  8. Sonya says:

    Well, from my Protestant training it stems from Hebrews 9:27, which if course doesn’t really support the belief of repentance only in this life, but we liked to think it did, contra those rotten Catholics!

    I think at least part of the desire to believe that repentance is available only here is psychological. We can only see and therefore influence/control what is happening in this life, and the idea of anything of real import happening on the other side of the veil via human volition (i.e. repentance) which we cannot see/influence/control is too unsettling.


  9. joel in ga says:

    The rich man in hell, who obviously had lived a self-indulgent life, now in Hades shows concern for his brothers back on earth and asks that they be warned. True, his request was rejected, but the rich man still undeniably showed some concern for people other than himself. Not much perhaps, but his request arguably represents the beginning of his repentance and a less selfish attitude.

    Liked by 1 person

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