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.
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).