No Repentance After Death: Facing Hard Questions about Salvation

Much has been written in recent years about the question of universal salvation. Several authors, including some on this blog, have shown in detail that universalism is not and can never be the teaching of Orthodoxy, since it is incompatible with both Scripture and the great majority of our patristic and liturgical tradition.

My purpose here is not to repeat what others have already said well. It is instead to try to address certain questions that even one who accepts the traditional teaching may continue to find troubling. I list five of these below. All are often pressed by universalists, but even apart from polemics, they are worth considering in their own right.

(1) Given what we know of God’s love and mercy, could He not find some way to enable the wicked to repent after death?

(2) More particularly, since (according to the Church Fathers) God is the Good, and all human choice innately seeks the Good, how is it possible that the damned could know God as the Good and yet fail to be drawn to Him?

(3) Furthermore, what about the verses that foretell a time when God will be “all in all” (I Cor. 15:28) and He will “gather together in one all things in Christ” (Eph. 1:10)? How are they consistent with some being eternally damned?

(4) What becomes of those who never had a chance to hear the Gospel? Is it not unjust that they have no chance to repent and believe?

(5) If someone’s fate is fixed at death, then what are we asking for when we pray for the dead?

These are large questions, and much could be said about each one of them. It may seem audacious to deal with them all in a single article, since inevitably what is said about any one will be inadequate. Yet there is some value to stepping back to try to get the big picture. Without trying to be conclusive, I offer here some thoughts that I hope may be helpful.

The Fathers’ outlook and our own

When one turns to the Church Fathers with these questions in mind, one thing that becomes apparent is that the Fathers did not find them pressing in the same way as we do today. Just as they took for granted that some will be eternally damned, so they assumed that there can be no repentance after death, at least of the thoroughgoing, “deep” kind that is essential to Christian life. (I will say more about different kinds of repentance below.) Yet for the most part they simply state this as a fact that is clear based on Scripture without examining it further.

Admittedly, there is a partial exception to this in those with universalist tendencies, such as Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa. Yet a closer look reveals that their concerns too were often quite different from ours. Gregory, in particular, thinks it just as obvious as do the other Fathers that there can be no repentance after death. Discussing the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man in On the Soul and the Resurrection, he describes the unbridgeable chasm created by the choices we make in this life:

This is the “gulf” which does not come of a rift in the earth, but is made of those decisions during this life which are divided into opposing inclinations. For anyone who has once chosen pleasure in this life and has not cured his recklessness through repentance, renders inaccessible to himself the country of the good hereafter, for he has dug by himself this impassible necessity like a yawning and unbridgeable abyss.

When later in the same work he goes on to envision the possibility of universal salvation, it is notable how little he says about repentance. He first offers the analogy of dragging someone who is crushed and maimed from under the rubble of a building. In the same way, the wicked will be saved when God “drags that which belongs to Him” out of the wreckage they have made of their own souls. Gregory then offers the further analogy of how one might clean off the clay plastered around a rope by violently pulling the rope through a narrow hole. In both cases, he emphasizes that the action comes from without and is experienced by the wicked themselves as torment.

The wicked are here no more than the passive recipients of God’s action. God effectively remakes them to be the persons He wants them to be, not those they have made themselves through their own free choice. One might question whether the results of a lifetime of free choice can be neatly separated from the core of the human person in this way; in fact, this supposition seems at odds with Gregory’s own insistence elsewhere that our self-determination (to autexousion) is essential to our identity. But however that may be, the process he envisages is not an answer to our question about repentance after death, for it involves no repentance. Gregory assumes, with the other Fathers, that such repentance is impossible.

Systematic theology?

There is a similar difference in outlook between the Fathers and ourselves in the case of the problem of evil. The Fathers devote great care to showing that God is not the source of evil. Yet they rarely discuss the question that in contemporary discussions is often the first one to be raised, that of why God does not intervene to prevent particular instances of undeserved suffering. Ivan Karamazov makes much of such cases in The Brothers Karamazov, and many others have followed suit. But it is a question that scarcely seems to have entered the consciousness of the ancient world.

No doubt there are many reasons for these differences in outlook. One that surely plays some role is that we live in the wake of centuries of meticulously elaborated systematic theology. For us it is natural to form chains of reasoning of the form: God has attributes A, B, C; therefore, He must do X.

Such reasoning is rare in the Fathers. They did not think of theological knowledge as having sufficient scope and generality that it can enable us to reason confidently about what God must do and why He must do it. On the contrary, they inclined to think that we know very little of God apart from what is revealed in Scripture and the life of the Church. They therefore tended not to raise certain questions that to us may seem inevitable.

This is not to say that our questions are illegitimate. The mere fact that they are important to us means they deserve an answer. Nonetheless, we must remember that the Fathers offer no “systematic theology.” I suspect that they would have viewed our own predilection for it as a strange passion, even if one that our society makes almost inescapable.

Christ the conqueror of death

Since they offer no systematic discussion, we must piece together our answers from various scattered remarks. One promising place to start is Christ’s harrowing of Hades, a topic that loomed larger in the faith of the ancient Church than it does today.

One can observe a certain growth in the understanding of Christ’s descent into Hades in early Christian thought. I Peter identifies those to whom Christ preached as “the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah” (3:19-20, RSV). Taken at face value this refers only to those who lived around the time of the Flood. A few verses later Peter refers more broadly to the gospel being preached to “the dead” (4:6), but this may be merely an allusion to the previous statement.

Already in the early centuries, however, there seems to have been wide agreement that Christ preached at least to all the righteous of the Old Testament, and perhaps to the righteous gentiles as well. The audience of his preaching is variously described as “the patriarchs and prophets” (Gospel of Nicodemus 18.1), “Adam and all the saints [that] followed him” (24.2), “Adam and all them that were with him” (Gospel of Bartholomew 9), and “the righteous and the prophets” (Epistle of the Apostles 27). Clement of Alexandria asserts more definitely that those who were saved from Hades included “those who had lived in righteousness according to the Law and philosophy . . . whose life had been pre-eminent, on repenting of their transgressions” (Stromata 6.6.45). Thus he identifies those who were saved as the righteous from among both Jews and gentiles.

No doubt in saying this, Clement assumes that it was also only the righteous, for otherwise there would have been no point in stating such a restriction. St. John Chrysostom makes this more explicit. He notes that the saying of Christ that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for the cities that reject his disciples implies that at least many of those in Sodom and Gomorrah still await judgment. Accordingly, the descent of Christ “indicates the destruction of the might of death, not the loosing of the sins of those who died before his coming.” Those who were saved at his descent were those who did not worship idols and “knew the true God,” although they did not know Christ (Homilies on Matthew 36.3).

St. Maximus the Confessor holds a similar view. He goes further, however, in speculating that many of those who perished not only in the Flood, but at the Tower of Babel, in Sodom, and during the plagues on Egypt—groups that undoubtedly included many idolaters—were ultimately saved when they responded in faith to Christ’s preaching (To Thalassius 7.2).

For our purposes, the important point is that whatever response was given was determined by the character the dead had formed during their earthly life. To respond in faith no doubt involved repentance, but the repentance was “weak” in the sense that it merely required the rejection and disavowal of errors that had been committed in ignorance. As Metropolitan Hilarion has shown in detail, there was broad agreement that this did not include all who were in Hades, for some had so formed their character during their earthly life that even when they at last heard the Gospel, they did not believe.

Why there can be no repentance

As this discussion illustrates, repentance can take stronger or weaker forms. Strong repentance involves not only the disavowal of errors committed in ignorance, but an active condemnation of all in oneself that has been opposed to or alienated from God. It typically requires some sort of positive action to follow through on the renunciation. We see such repentance in Gospel stories such as that of Zacchaeus, who restored fourfold to those he had defrauded, and the parables of the Publican and the Pharisee and the Prodigal Son.

John Chrysostom is perhaps our fullest source for patristic views of repentance. Commenting on the warning in the book of Hebrews that “it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened . . . if they then commit apostasy” (6:4-6), he lists six elements of a true and lasting repentance. They are: condemnation of one’s sin, humbleness of mind, intense prayer with tears, almsgiving, forgiveness, and leading others away from sin (Homilies on Hebrews 9.8). Elsewhere he says more simply that “repentance is not doing the same again”—and he goes on to add that to heal the wound one must also do the opposite, so that if one has been covetous the cure is almsgiving, if one has found fault with another the cure is to show him kindness, and so on (Homilies on John 34.3).

Such acts are impossible after death. The Blessed Theophylact sees in this the reason why there can be no post mortem repentance. Commenting on the parable of the master of the house who says to those who knock too late at his door, “I know not whence you are” (Luke 13:25), he comments:

After their death, those who lived negligently in this life at last begin to knock at the door—only now, because of their useless repentance, seeking to find the path of virtue, calling out for it with mere words like so much pounding and banging, but devoid of any deeds. (Commentary on the Gospel of Luke).

For Theophylact it is evidently the inability to perform bodily acts that is the reason why whatever regret may be felt cannot amount to true repentance.

St. Dorotheus of Gaza offers a different (though complementary) perspective. For him the crucial point is that in our present life the body offers many opportunities for fellowship and good humor. When these are removed, the soul is left alone with its passions:

Through this body the soul gets away from its own passions and is comforted; it is fed, it drinks, sleeps, meets and associates with friends. When at last it goes out of the body it is alone with its passions and, in short, it is tormented by them, forever nattering to them and being incensed by the disturbance and being torn to pieces by them so that it is unable to remember God. (Discourse 12)

Obviously if the soul cannot remember God, it cannot repent. Dorotheus thus grounds the soul’s inability to repent in its isolation and entrapment within its own passions.

Although these two portrayals differ in their emphases, they are not contradictory. It may be that some persons will continue to “bang at the door” of vain regret for their deeds, whereas others will fail to rise even to that point; or perhaps for all, regret will gradually give way to a kind of self-consuming gloom. The important point is that regret and remorse are not the same as repentance. To repent requires a true change of heart, and that is simply not possible once bodily life has ended.

Dionysius: God as the Good

But perhaps we have been too hasty, for we have yet to face the second question. How is it possible to be fully aware of God as the Good and yet not desire Him? Raising this question does indeed put matters in a different light, although one that deepens rather than overturning what we have concluded.

The first to address this question was St. Dionysius the Areopagite. He does so, not in regard to human souls, but in discussing the evil of demons. In the Divine Names he asks: “How is it that the multitude of demons has no desire for the Beautiful and the Good and indeed is inclined to the material and is lapsed from the angelic condition of longing for the Good?” (4.18).

In answer, Dionysius first draws a parallel to a human being who lives intemperately:

He is deprived of the Good in direct proportion to his irrational urges. In that respect he neither is nor desires things that truly are. Nevertheless he has some share of the Good, since there is in him a distorted echo of real love and real unity. (4.20)

To the extent that he has succumbed to vice, such a person “neither is nor desires things that truly are.” This statement epitomizes the longstanding incorporation of Platonic philosophical psychology into Christian thought. Already in Plato, it is axiomatic that all human action is for the sake of the Good, although human perceptions of the Good are inevitably partial and distorted. That to attain true knowledge of the Good is also to attain or recover true being is another Platonic axiom, one intimated in the myth of the Cave in the Republic and the Charioteer myth in the Phaedrus.

The Cappadocian Fathers readily embraced the identification of God with the Good and the Beautiful, along with the ancillary notion that all human action is an obscure way of seeking the Good. They also shared the commonplace identification (based on Exodus 3:14) of God with Being. It follows readily enough from these premises that to depart from God is in some sense to fall away from true being. Likewise, to turn away from God is to desire that which is not and so is ultimately doomed to frustration.

Dionysius argues that the demons too, like the intemperate man, are good insofar as they are, but have through their own choice turned aside to that which is not. “They are evil to the extent that they are not, and they desire evil by desiring what is not” (4.23). The result is perpetual frustration: “Even the intelligence of demons . . . insofar as it seeks to come upon what it desires irrationally neither knows nor truly wants, and is better called a falling away from wisdom” (7.2). To misuse the natural gift of intelligence by turning to evil is, for Dionysius, a kind of psychic fragmentation, in that one does not even truly want that which one is seeking.

Dionysius does not address whether the demons might possibly repent. Yet it is hard to see how they could, given that they already possess full knowledge of God as the Good. What more could they learn or encounter that might cause them to change?

Just as importantly, their remaining in evil is also, in some sense, a dwindling away to nothing. By refusing the being that God wishes to give them, they have diminished themselves to the point of being almost nothing at all.

Maximus: When God will be all in all

St. Maximus the Confessor was the patristic author who followed through this line of thought most fully. He begins by asking what the full manifestation of God as the Good will entail for human freedom. In a well-known passage of the Ambigua, he describes how in the eschaton “nothing will appear apart from God, nor will there be anything opposed to God that could entice our will to desire it, since all things intelligible and sensible will be enveloped in the ineffable manifestation and presence of God” (7.12). He goes on to interpret in this light the famously cryptic statement of St. Paul: “when this happens, ‘God will be all in all’ (1 Cor 15:28), encompassing all things and making them subsist in Himself, for beings will no longer possess independent motion or fail to share in God’s presence” (7.31).

Taken in isolation these passages might seem to support universalism. As one continues reading, however, it becomes clear that Maximus fully accepts the traditional teaching regarding eternal damnation. This emerges particularly in Ambigua 21. After describing the soul that, by the right use of its natural powers, “arrives at God,” Maximus adds in contrast:

If, however, it makes the wrong or mistaken use of these powers, delving into the world in a manner contrary to what is proper, it is obvious that it will succumb to dishonorable passions, and in the coming life will rightly be cast away from the presence of the divine glory, receiving the dreadful condemnation of being estranged from relation with God for infinite ages, a sentence so distressing that the soul will not be able to contest it, for it will have as a perpetually relentless accuser its own disposition, which created for it a mode of existence that in fact did not exist. (21.12)

Maximus is here, much like Dionysius, drawing out the implication of the identification of God as Being. Both authors present the consequence of the misuse of the natural powers bestowed by the Creator as a diminution into non-being. Such non-being is not the loss of existence, however; it is continuation in existence in a diminished and perpetually frustrated state.

What then does it mean to say that, at the eschaton, “God will be all in all”? Presumably the answer must be that, although the damned (like all creatures) will share in God’s presence, they will be unable to participate in God as the Good. Maximus makes this explicit in Ambigua 65. There we learn:

To those who have willfully used the principle of their being contrary to nature, He [God] rightly renders not well-being but eternal ill-being, since well-being is no longer accessible to those who have placed themselves in opposition to it, and they have absolutely no motion after the manifestation of what was sought. (65.3)

Evidently the same divine presence that is experienced by the blessed as bliss will be experienced by the damned as torment. The difference does not lie in God’s action, but in their own disposition. The damned by their evil choices have made themselves into beings that find the Good itself repugnant, even though it remains for them, as for all things, the ultimate object of desire. As Dionysius says of the demons, their desire is no longer true desire, but has become instead an emblem of their descent into non-being.

Some further reflections

These are, I think the basic lineaments of patristic teaching on our questions, apart from that on prayer. Before turning to the last question, I would like to offer a few further reflections. Although these are my own ideas, I believe that they are in the spirit of patristic teaching.

First let us consider again the question of the scope of Christ’s preaching in Hades. The patristic authors who deal with this subject seem to take for granted that he preached only to those who were in Hades at the time of his death. They do not address whether his audience might somehow include all in Hades, including those who died (or will die) long after the time of Christ.

It might seem that simple chronology would rule this out. However, time itself is not a simple matter in patristic thought. St. Basil holds that, whereas earthly time is the interval “coextensive with the existence of the cosmos,” there exists also a kind of “hypertime” of the angels (Hexaemeron 1.5). Although he does not attempt to define its character precisely, Gregory of Nyssa takes this subject a bit further. He speculates that the angels are not subject to the loss of the past as we are, but instead live in a kind of “ever-present good” that is constantly growing through their own growth in goodness (Homilies on the Song of Songs 6). For both authors, although the angels can enter into human time, they exist also in their own quasi-temporal order that is independent of and superior to our own.

Nothing prevents Hades from having in the same way its own quasi-temporal order that is very different from ours. Precisely what it is like is unknown to us. As Creator, however, Christ could surely preach to all the dead from all times in a way that occurs, from an earthly standpoint, upon his death in 33 A.D.

It may also be (although whether this should be regarded as a distinct possibility is unclear) that Christ is now present in Hades in a way that conveys to those there a knowledge of the Gospel as effectively as did his preaching. Metropolitan Hilarion has suggested that something like this is implied in the Prayer of the Anaphora in the Liturgy of St. Basil (Christ the Conqueror of Hell, 218). There Christ is described as follows:

Descending through the Cross into Hades that he might fill all things with himself, he loosed the pangs of death. He arose on the third day, having made for all flesh a path to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible for the Author of life to be conquered by corruption.

In making “for all flesh a path to the resurrection from the dead,” Christ, on this reading, makes the Gospel available to all regardless of the date of their death in a way that is simply unknown to us.

On either of these views, the descent of Christ into Hades continues to present an opportunity for what I referred to earlier as “weak” repentance. Such an understanding would seem to be more consistent with both divine justice and divine mercy than to suppose that this opportunity is not somehow extended to all.

Yet even on such a view, it remains that there can be no repentance in the deep, character-changing sense after death, and that some are indeed perpetually damned. How are we to understand their state? It seems to me that the teaching of Dionysius and Maximus about diminution into non-being offers an important clue.

My own thinking on this subject was shaped by the experience of tending to an old and dear friend during his final days. Owing to his terminal illness he suffered periodic bouts of intense pain. But at the same time his mind was fading, so that he neither remembered the pain he had undergone nor seemed to have any expectation of further pain to come. Indeed he scarcely remembered where he was or why he was there. He could still speak and we would answer these questions, but a few minutes later he would ask again.

Such failings are a natural part of dying. They show that the soul is losing its connection to the body and has already begun to take a step into the other world. Oddly enough, the psychic disintegration he suffered was a blessing, since it meant the bodily pain, although intense, did not infect his mind with fear and dread as it would for someone who still had his full faculties.

Could the state of the damned be something like this? God destroys nothing that He has made, for all is good insofar as it is. But He does allow our acts to bring about their natural end. Perhaps, then, the diminution of the wicked into non-being ultimately leaves them with neither memory, nor hope, nor dread, but only the fragmentary wreckage of human consciousness.

If we ask what such a state would look like from the standpoint of the blessed, the answer may well be nothing at all. For given what we have already noted about time, it may be that the entire asymptotic decline of Hell takes place, from the standpoint of Heaven, in less than a moment. Something like this is what C.S. Lewis envisages in The Great Divorce.

I do not know. Even if I am wrong about all of this—which I allow is fully possible—the point remains that there is far, far more that we do not know about the afterlife than that we do know.

Prayer for the dead

Finally, what exactly are we asking for when we pray for the dead? We must remember, in the first place, that we do not know in what state a person has died. God alone “searches the heart, to give to each according to his ways” (Jer. 17:10). We therefore pray for each from a standpoint of hope, no matter what our fears may be.

Nonetheless, it is true that what prayers can accomplish inevitably depends a great deal on the state of the soul of the deceased. No prayer can transform someone into someone he was not. On the other hand, the very concept of judge implies a certain discretion in the act of judgment, and it is this that prayers aim primarily to affect.

Jean-Claude Larchet has studied this matter in detail. He writes:

The Fathers consider that in certain cases, the prayers of the living, of saints in particular, can obtain from God . . . that certain sinners whose lives were not totally evil may be pardoned of their sins and freed from their punishment, and can either at the time of the Last Judgment avoid Gehenna, or from now on depart from the ‘places of torment’ and enter into the dwellings of the just. For Orthodox Fathers and theologians hell in fact remains open, and it will be closed definitively only after the ultimate Judgment . . . These Fathers and theologians often cite the case of Falconille, delivered from hell by the prayers of St. Thecla, that of the emperor Trajan liberated from there following the prayers of St. Gregory the Great and that of the iconoclast emperor Theophilus, whose pardon was obtained after his wife Theodora had asked the monks, clergy and all the faithful to pray for him.

Yet inevitably much remains uncertain. Larchet continues:

These cases are, however, exceptional. In the treatise Concerning Those who have Died in the Faith long attributed to St. John of Damascus and which, under this sponsorship, has had a great influence on later theologians, it is asserted that impenitent sinners are not usually delivered by suffrages for the deceased. A good many theologians affirm that, although the majority of great sinners cannot avoid Gehenna or be totally freed from their present torments, they are however able to receive a little relief from the prayers of the faithful.

Vasileios Marinis, in his Death and the Afterlife in Byzantium, arrives at similar conclusions.

In this, as in other matters relating to the afterlife, we must maintain both sobriety and hope. We do not know the judgment of God in any particular case. We know that we are commanded to pray for the dead. And we know that our prayers are directed to one whose goodness and mercy exceed all human conception. That is enough for this present life, where we walk by faith, and not by sight.


Editor’s note: The above article was solicited by the O&H editors as a popular-level re-presentation of Dr. Bradshaw’s book chapter “Patristic Views on Why There Is No Repentance after Death,” forthcoming in The Unity of Body and Soul in Patristic and Byzantine Thought, ed. A. Usacheva, S. Bhayro, and J. Ulrich (Brill).

8 comments:

  1. A timely message by Dr. Bradshaw. Would love to see this project develop further. I also commend the fuller article/book chapter, as it gives the “whole” argument. (The scare quotes only denote my hopes that Dr. Bradshaw will continue unfolding this line of thought, as a faithful witness to Holy Tradition.) Thank you for your work, fathers and brothers.

    In the Ascended Christ,
    Owen-Maximus

  2. In order to repent, you have to be a complete human being, a complete human person, body and soul, with full freedom, “sui compos”. A man in a semi comatose condition cannot change his last will and testament. Similarly a separated human soul does not have the power to change the course of his one and only human life, since that life is over, finished, accomplished. It is too late. The door is closed.
    May I add that hoping for everybody to get a last second, before the soul is breathed forth, a last second illumination, is a vain hope. A number of the parables speak about an unpleasant surprise on the other side, do they not? “Now is the acceptable time. Today is the day of salvation.”

  3. Dear Dr. Bradshaw,
    In your final section concerning prayers for the dead, you seem to only deal with the effect prayers for the dead might have for those who may not have repented in their earthly life.
    It has always been my impression that prayers for the dead come in two kinds. One is for those presumed to be saved in Christ by repentance and faith. The other is for those presumed to be outside of Christ for one reason or another.
    It seems to me that the ultimate meaning of the maxim, “no repentance after death,” corresponds to what you wrote so elegantly in the proceeding paragraphs. But this doesn’t mean that all those who have repented and are saved in Christ by faith have attained to equal holiness through “fruits of repentance” while they are alive.
    There are lasting effects of sin, attachments to worldly things, passions, addictions. These impurities remain even after we unite our selves to Christ. We all know Christians who are still mired in sin. I am surely one of them. I need to acquire, by the grace of God, the fruits of repentance and faith in order to be purified, to love God with a pure heart, and so to see Him face to face. As Jesus taught, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” This is consistent with the three fold path to theosis: purification, illumination, perfection.
    But what if I die before I experience the grace of final theosis? I have repented. I have faith in Christ and am united to him in the Holy Sacraments. My sins are surely forgiven. But what if I die before these lasting effects of sin, addictions, and passions are purified away? Will I ever see the face of God? Or will I depart to outer darkness. Part of the Gospel, as experienced in Church’s tradition of prayers for the dead, is that a final sanctifying work is accomplished in such a soul that allows them to acquire — after death — those full fruits of repentance and faith that they might have acquired in life. The encounter with the risen Lord is like a final post-mortem purification that burns away all the lasting effects of sin so that our hearts can love God with a pure and undivided love and then be illumined and perfected.
    What normally does this work in life? Penance. Mortification. Self-sacrifice. All those things that weaken the passions and strengthen the intellect and will so that attachment to created things does not overwhelm our attachment to God. In death we are unable to do acts of penance, because as you pointed out, the soul has no body with which to act to carry out penance. So that final post-mortem sanctification is a blessed grace we receive from Christ to make us ready for theosis and to see the face of God.
    Isn’t it is this grace that we are asking for when we pray for the faithful departed.
    Father Seraphim Rose writes, “In the Orthodox doctrine, on the other hand, which St. Mark teaches, the faithful who have died with small sins unconfessed, or who have not brought forth fruits of repentance for sins they have confessed, are cleansed of these sins either in the trial of death itself with its fear, or after death, when they are confined (but not permanently) in hell, by the prayers and Liturgies of the Church and good deeds performed for them by the faithful.”
    Sincerely,
    Ryan

    1. Thank you, these are good points, You are right that prayers for those who have died in faith are of great value. I suspect you are probably right that they help in the process of purification you describe. However, since this has not been conclusively affirmed by the whole Church, I hesitate to assert it as a known fact. The book I cite at the end, Death and the Afterlife in Byzantium, contains a good description of various views on this subject. At the very least we must pray for all and trust that God will hear those prayers and give them due weight in the ways that He alone can rightly determine.

      1. Thank you Dr. Bradshaw for your fair appreciation of my point of view. Perhaps it is not a “known fact,” but there is a certain coherence with the whole of the Christian Faith. Perhaps this can be made clearer if one considers the implications of assuming the contrary.

        Point 1: Christians who have been forgiven of their sins still have the lasting effects of sins — wounds of sins — especially passions and attachments to created things. Assume the contrary: Every Christian who is forgiven never struggles with sins. All forgiven Christians have no attachments to created things and love God perfectly with their whole being. This is obviously not the case. We all know Christians who continue to struggle with sin and the destructive attachments to created things.

        Point 2: Only the pure in heart can see God. The pure heart wills one thing: to know and love God perfectly and completely and to enjoy him forever. Assume the contrary: Persons with impure hearts that are attached to created things can see God even if they do not will to love him perfectly. This isn’t what Jesus taught.

        Point 3: There is a well attested three-fold path of theosis which is taught by the Fathers both east and west. The first step is called purification / catharsis. In this part of the path, one cooperates with the Divine Grace to be purified of our attachments to created things. As Kyriacos C. Markides summarizes in his book, “The soul’s journey toward God, I explained to Emily that day, must go through three identifiable and distinct stages. At first there is the state of catharsis, or the purification of the soul from egotistical passions. It is then followed by the state of fotisis, or the enlightenment of the soul, a gift of the Holy Spirit once the soul has undergone its purification. Finally comes the stage of Theosis, union with God, as the final destination and ultimate home of the human soul. The last two stages are impossible to attain without having the soul first pass through the fires of catharsis from egotistical passions. (Markides, The Mountain of Silence)” Assume the contrary: The last two stages are *possible* to attain without having the soul first pass through the fires of catharsis from egotistical passions. Again we know that this is not true.

        Point 4: Acts of Penance or Mortification, the primary means of purification, work in cooperation with Divine Grace to weaken the passions and strengthen the will and intellect so that persons can break the chains of attachments to created things and direct their hearts in one direction — to the infinite worth of loving God end enjoying him forever. Assume the contrary: Acts of Penance or Mortification do not work to weaken the passions and strengthen the will and intellect. Persons can direct their hearts to God perfectly without weakening the passions and strengthening the heart. As you have reminded us, Saint John Chrysotom taught that it is necessary in order to heal the wounds of sin that “one must also do the opposite, so that if one has been covetous the cure is almsgiving, if one has found fault with another the cure is to show him kindness, and so on (Homilies on John 34.3).” Without these acts of penance the wounds of sin or the “lasting effects of sin” cannot be set right.

        Point 5: Acts of Penance cannot be preformed after death because the soul has no body with which to act to carry out penance. Assume the contrary: The soul after death can do acts of penance that can assist in the process of purification, even without a body. As you have reinforced in your article, “Such acts are impossible after death” and it is “the inability to perform bodily acts that is the reason why whatever regret may be felt cannot amount to true repentance.”

        Point 6: Persons who have not at least completed the “stage” of purification / catharsis before they die — who leave this life without having brought forth fruits of repentance for sins, who continue to suffer from the passions and the wounds of sin up to the moment of death — are *not* abandoned by God if they have placed their trust in him to save them. Assume the contrary: Persons who love God — albeit imperfectly — and who put their trust in him to save them, and have been forgiven from all their sins for the sake of Christ, but who nonetheless have lasting wounds of sins such as passions and attachments to created things, are abandoned by God and will never be able to see God face to face and know him and enjoy him forever. That is just not true. Saint John of Damascus writes, “One who has departed unrepentant and with an evil life cannot be helped by anyone in any way. But the one who has departed even with the slightest virtue, but who had no time to increase this virtue because of indolence, indifference, procrastination, or timidity, the Lord who is a righteous judge and master will not forget such a one. (St John of Damascus)” God is merciful and will not forget those who have died without first bringing forth fruits of repentance.

        Point 7: Those that have died without first bringing forth fruits of repentance, who have lasting effects of sin or wounds of sin (Point 6), because they cannot do anything to help themselves in this respect (Point 5), are assisted by a post mortem work of Divine Grace to make up for what was lacking in their purification in life and to cleans their hearts to make them ready to see God (Point 2). Assume the contrary: Divine Grace does not assist the soul of a person who loves God and has faith in him to save them if their purification remained incomplete in this life and such persons will never see God. This is also not true. Father Seraphim Rose sums up the Patristic doctrine in this way, “In the Orthodox doctrine, on the other hand, which St. Mark teaches, the faithful who have died with small sins unconfessed, or who have not brought forth fruits of repentance for sins they have confessed, are cleansed of these sins either in the trial of death itself with its fear, or after death, when they are confined (but not permanently) in hell, by the prayers and Liturgies of the Church and good deeds performed for them by the faithful.”

        Therefore, unless someone is willing to affirm one or more of the above seven contraries then that person and I are in essential agreement. To summarize, I’ll list the seven contraries again:

        1. Christians who are forgiven never struggle with sin or suffer from destructive attachments to created things.
        2. Persons with impure hearts that are attached to created things can see God even if they do not will to love him perfectly.
        3. One can attain to the gifts of illumination and union with God without having first passed through the purification that heals the wounds of sin.
        4. Acts of Penance or Mortification do not work to weaken the passions and strengthen the will and intellect. Persons can direct their hearts to God perfectly without weakening the passions and strengthening the heart.
        5. The soul after death can do acts of penance that can assist in the process of purification, even without a body.
        6. Persons who love God — albeit imperfectly — and who put their trust in him to save them, and have been forgiven from all their sins for the sake of Christ, but who nonetheless have lasting wounds of sins such as passions and attachments to created things, are abandoned by God and will never be able to see God face to face.
        7. Divine Grace does not assist the soul of a person who loves God and has faith in him to save them if their purification in this life remained incomplete.

        Which of these contrary opinions do you think most contemporary Orthodox Christians accept as true?

        The troubling thing to me about how this Christian doctrine is evolving over time is that more and more Christians simply assume that their loved ones who have died are automatically in heaven. That is a protestant point of view. If one absorbs this point of view then one will not feel the need to pray for the souls of the dead, for if they are already at rest in heaven with the saints in the presence of God, then what need do they have of our prayers. We need to remember that not all who die are ready to die. Not all who die are ready to enter the presence of God and see him face to face. I hope that I will have loved ones who will pray for me after I die so that by the grace of God, as I encounter the beautiful glory of the Risen Christ, all the wounds of my soul and all my remaining attachments to sins and created things will be cleansed away, and then, finally, I will be made able to see to glory of God.

        Thank you very much for your time Dr. Bradshaw.

  4. In Helen Kontzevitch’s “Saint Seraphim: Wonderworker of Sarov”, she reports St. Seraphim as saying that it is the “hardest thing to free a soul from hell”- which he then goes onto do in a visionary way through intercession. This is an interesting thread in Christian history and theology.

  5. The Emperor Trajan knew of Christianity. He authorized the execution of Christians for being Christians in his letter to Pliny. And yet through the prayers of the Church his soul was redeemed back to God. I think this should be seen as a priestly participation of the Church in the work of Christ in descending into the depths of the grave prior to ascending above all things. The ladder that goes all the way up also goes all the way down, and the Church in the Holy Spirit implements in all things the reign of Christ through this work. That Trajan was bought back to God is a reality of enormous significance. This gives us powerful reason to hope that there are countless such persons and that the grace of God is richly abundant in the lives of those we might not expect. I hesitate to use the word inclusivism because of its association with liberal theology but I don’t know what else to call it.

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