Is There No Repentance After Death?

The Church Fathers maintain consistently that there is no repentance after death. This claim bears upon both the great question of how we shall fare after our departure from this life, as well as the more immediate question of how we ought to live now. But if the soul retains consciousness after our earthly repose, precisely what is it that makes postmortem repentance impossible?

Noted patristics scholar David Bradshaw lucidly addresses this momentous question, drawing faithfully upon both scripture and patristic writings, and in the process casting light upon the true nature of repentance itself, as well as the condition of those who adamantly refuse the Love of God.

Originally appeared at: Another City

“It is appointed to men once to die, and then the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). This sober warning reminds us of one of the most essential themes of the Gospel—our perilous state in this present life, as each of us moves ever closer to the moment when we must stand before the righteous Judge.

Indeed, seen from one point of view, all of Orthodoxy is nothing more than a preparation for that moment. That is not to say that we cannot or should not be moved by the pure love of God and delight in divine beauty. To be so moved is undoubtedly well worth seeking. Yet both Scripture and the services of the Church never let us forget that, looming over all of our present life, there is and must be a fear of the Judgment.

“The Good and Evil Angels” by William Blake (1795)

 Although such an attitude of sobriety has always been integral to Christianity, for many there is a nagging doubt: why cannot there be repentance after death? After all, God is good and loves mankind, and surely His love does not end at the grave. Granted, the many depictions of divine judgment in Scripture give no encouragement to this hope, nor does the traditional teaching of the Church.1 But perhaps these depictions have been read too literally. One might argue that God, if He is omnipotent as well as perfectly good, will somehow arrange matters so that all will eventually repent and be saved. Precisely such an argument has been made by some philosophers.2 But even without going that far, many today find it impossible to take the depictions of divine judgment in Scripture at face value. They simply cannot believe that the merciful God would condemn some to eternal damnation. And so they either bracket the issue, choosing not to think about it, or conclude that all the talk of divine judgment in Scripture and the services of the Church must really mean something else.

 To answer such doubts we must delve more deeply into the traditional teaching. As it turns out, the Church Fathers have a good deal to say on this subject that is not widely known. To fully understand their teaching requires placing it into a broad context that includes the nature of divine judgment itself, as well as related topics such as repentance and the fate of the soul upon death. We must patiently follow these various threads in order to see how they come together to form a view that is at once coherent, scriptural, and adequate to both the justice and the mercy of God.

 A Preliminary Distinction

 Let us note, first, that there are two different occasions of divine judgment. One is the Last Judgment, when Christ will raise the dead either to the “resurrection of life” or the “resurrection of damnation” (John 5:29). The other is the particular judgment of each soul upon death, when it is allotted a temporary place of blessedness or suffering while awaiting the Last Judgment. Whereas there are many scriptural texts about the former, the latter is more hinted at than directly described. Belief in it is based primarily on two texts: the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, which portrays the souls of the dead in such an intermediate state, and the promise made by Christ to the penitent thief, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). It is also strongly suggested by the practice of prayer to the saints, since this practice presupposes that the saints are in a position to hear and respond to prayer.3 The most obvious alternative would be a belief in “soul sleep,” which has been widely regarded as a heresy throughout the history of Orthodoxy.4

 This distinction is important to bear in mind when considering the question of repentance after death, for different considerations come into play regarding each of these two judgments. In what follows, we will begin by considering the nature of divine judgment in general, including its relationship both to God’s love and to the imperative of repentance. Following this we will turn to patristic teaching about the particular judgment and the “intermediate state” in which the departed now dwell. Finally we will consider the Last Judgment and what we know (and, importantly, do not know) about the ultimate fate of the damned.

 What Is Divine Judgment?

 Most of the passages about divine judgment in the New Testament describe it straightforwardly as a rendering of reward or punishment for works done in this life. The sheer number and variety of these texts—found pervasively in the Gospels, St. Paul, and the book of Revelation—should serve as a reminder, if any is needed, that this fundamental theme must never be neglected.5 Another strand in these texts is perhaps less familiar. It presents the judgment as an unmediated encounter with Christ, in which what ultimately matters is whether he recognizes and welcomes the one before him. We see this strand above all in the description of the Last Judgment in the Sermon on the Mount, where Christ describes how he will say to those who performed mighty deeds in his name, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” (Matt. 7:23).6 Here there is a contrast between what might be suggested by a superficial accounting of deeds and the actual reality perceived by Christ. The point of the story is not to deny the importance of deeds, for those condemned are called “evildoers.”7 It is, rather, that if the deeds do not issue in a true relationship of mutual knowledge and love with Christ, they are in vain.

 The same point is implicit in the other most famous depiction of the Last Judgment, that of the sheep and the goats. Here what matters is not just that the sheep did, and the goats did not, feed the hungry, care for the sick, and so on; it is that each, in so doing, either manifested or failed to manifest a true relationship to Christ. “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). It is true that those on each side did not realize the true significance of their actions, but this merely underscores that what ultimately matters in divine judgment is not any mechanical accounting of deeds, but the presence or absence of a living relationship to Christ.

 We have, then, two different ways of thinking about judgment—as an accounting of deeds and as knowing, and being known by, Christ. Although they present different emphases they are not contradictory, for Christ makes it plain that he is known precisely in keeping his commandments. As we read in the Gospel of John, “he who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (14:21). To keep Christ’s commandments is to “abide in his love,” just as he abides in the Father’s love (15:10). That is why, besides a good account at the Last Judgment, eternal life may also be understood as the knowledge of the Father and the Son: “this is eternal life, that they may know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (17:3).

 What is it about obedience to Christ that produces a mutual relationship with him? Obedience in general does not do this; I obey the I.R.S. assiduously when I prepare my taxes, but I do not (thankfully) have any such relationship with the I.R.S. The difference, of course, is that the commandments of Christ are those of our Creator. According to Scripture, God in creating each of us created also the path of life that we are to follow: “for we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). When we follow this path, it becomes manifest that our works themselves have been wrought in God: “he that does truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifest, that they are wrought in God” (John 3:21).8 What does it mean to be “wrought in God”? Surely at least this: to be fully and completely real, as opposed to the emptiness and futility of all that is opposed to Him. When we follow the path of life that God has set before us, we too thereby become fully and completely real, fulfilling the high intent that He had in creating us. We thereby become, as it were, finished and complete, and so capable of being fully known and loved.

 It may seem that I am building a great deal on just a few verses. But in fact the tight interconnection of obedience, love, knowing and being known, and being fully real, is already prominent in the Old Testament. We have only to remember the simple words of the first psalm:

 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.

 The wicked are not so, but are like the chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

 The very existence of the wicked is ephemeral and transitory, for it is not rooted in God, who alone can give us the depth needed to make us fully real. That depth comes through the long struggle to obey God through all the challenges and trials of life. Christ’s warning that he will say to some of those before him, “I never knew you,” is surely an echo of this statement in the Psalms that “the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”

A similar point could be illustrated at length through the lives of the patriarchs and prophets, from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to Moses, David, Elijah, Daniel, and Job. Whatever their faults, we see in them what it means for a human being to stand before God as one who is answerable to Him. As they do so, we come to see what it means both to know God and to be known by Him.

 One way that Scripture summarizes this theme is by reference to the heart. “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). The heart is the deep inner core of a person as he does (or does not) stand before God. It is contrasted to the thoughts, words, and deeds that issue from that core. At the same time, those very thoughts, words, and deeds continually shape the heart, so that in every free act we are engaged in defining our own deepest being.

 Recognizing this is essential to understanding both the nature of judgment and the possibility of a true relationship with God. Ultimately it is the heart that is judged—so much so that St. Luke coins a new term, kardiognostes, to indicate that God alone is the knower of hearts.9 Likewise it is in the heart that God ultimately is or is not known. As we read in St. Paul, “it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out in darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (II Cor. 4:6).

 What Is Repentance?

 Recognizing the role of the heart is the key to understanding the nature of repentance. Repentance is not just the making of amends for specific deeds, but the turning of the heart toward God. Just as it is through narrative that Scripture teaches us how to obey, so through narrative Scripture teaches us what it means to repent. One thinks, for instance, of the stories of Kings David, Hezekiah, and Manasseh in the Old Testament and the parables of the Publican and the Prodigal Son in the New. We also have a kind of negative image of repentance in Judas, whose somber tale shows that repentance can be absent even in the presence of its close cousins, guilt and remorse.

 Patristic teaching about repentance emphasizes that it is a long and difficult process that requires more than simply regret for past deeds. St. John Chrysostom, 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), lists six elements of a true and lasting repentance. These are: condemnation of one’s sin, humbleness of mind, intense prayer with tears, almsgiving, forgiveness, and leading others away from sin.10 Elsewhere he says more simply, “repentance is not doing the same again”; and he goes on to add that to heal the wound one must 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.11 The reason repentance takes action—indeed, when possible, repeated and habitual action—is that the heart is deep and hard to change. Nothing could be more familiar from experience than that one may hate what one has done, want to change, and even believe that one has changed, but find, when put to the test, that one has not. The Fathers’ attitude is therefore merely realistic in recognizing that to change the heart requires, not just regret and a desire to change, but deeds that put the commitment into action.

 Having said that repentance is hard, we must now add that, in a different sense, nothing could be easier. All that is required is to start; then, at the next moment, to continue; then, if one falls, to get up again. In such a case one can be said to have “repented” at the very first moment, with the rest being merely a continuation of that initial movement. The Gospels offer several stories of such swift and total repentance, as of Zacchaeus, or the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, or Peter’s weeping after his three-fold denial. Of course, in each of these cases we assume (and in the case of Peter, we know) that the repentance was followed by appropriate action. If it had not been, we would not refer to it as repentance, but as, at best, a momentary good intention.

 Thus in a sense repentance becomes real retrospectively, in light of the fruit that it bears. At least, that is the normal case. The Gospels offer at least one apparent counter-example, the thief on the cross. We must not overlook how much it must have cost the thief to confess Christ as Lord in the midst of his mental and physical agony. Although the element of putting repentance into action was severely truncated in his case, it was thus not wholly absent. The same can be said of those martyrs (such as the fortieth of the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste) who, although they had lived negligently, chose at the crucial moment to die for Christ. They too raced to the finish line, showing, at the last moment when it was still possible, fruit that was worthy of repentance.

 Prayer For The Dead

 If we understand the nature of repentance, we see at once why departed souls are unable to repent. Separated from the body and from any form of human society, they can no longer perform acts such as could reshape the heart. Their impotence in this respect is described in the very rite where the Church prays most fervently for the dead, the funeral service. We find there the departed soul crying out:

Woe is me! What manner of ordeal does the soul endure when it is parted from the body! Woe is me! How many then are its tears, and there is none to show compassion! Turning its eyes to the angels, it supplicates in vain; stretching out its hands to men, it finds none to succor. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, meditating on the brevity of our life, let us beseech of Christ rest for him who has departed hence; and for our souls great mercy12

 The picture here of the soul is plainly influenced by that of the Rich Man in Christ’s parable, as well as by Christ’s references to the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” of those cast into the outer darkness. It is a picture of utter, hopeless, impotent futility. The Blessed Theophylact interprets in a similar way the “shutting of the door” by the master of the house (Luke 13:25):

 Indeed it is while we are still in this life that we must make spiritual preparation for the feast, before “the master of the house is risen up,” that is, risen up and come forth to judge, “and has shut the door,” which means, closed the pathway of virtue. For further progress on that path cannot be made after we leave this life. It is only while we are in this life that we can walk the way of virtue. 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.13

 It is their inability to act that renders the remorse of the departed hollow and empty.

 Of course, the fact that the dead are unable to help themselves is all the more reason why we who are living should seek to aid them. Accordingly, the Church has traditionally encouraged prayer for the dead as well as almsgiving on their behalf. What precisely is accomplished by such prayer depends on their state at death. Discussions of this question in the Byzantine era distinguished between those who have been condemned merely because of certain errant deeds for which they had failed to repent, and those who died with a settled disposition that was alienated from God. It was concluded, based largely on the testimony of various saints’ lives, that the prayers of the faithful can move God to grant at least some of the former release from Hades. These have included even a pagan persecutor of Christians (the emperor Trajan) and a heretic (the emperor Theophilus).14 Hence one must not stint in prayer even for those who seemingly died in deep sin. Furthermore, when such release is not granted, prayer is still of avail in relieving the suffering of the departed while they await the Last Judgment.15

 How far such consolation goes is hard to say, for we know little about the suffering of those in Hades. Some (following a more literal reading of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man) have envisioned a kind of quasi-physical torment, whereas others think the suffering is wholly internal, consisting only in remorse and fear of the Judgment.16 St. Mark of Ephesus, a champion of the latter view, holds that suffering is nonetheless necessary for many souls in order to purify them prior to the Last Judgment.17 Despite whatever uncertainty there may be on such points, all agree that the departed in Hades can no longer help themselves owing to the nature of the disembodied state, and so can have no help except what they receive through prayer.

 The Descent Into Hades

 Another objection might also be offered. There seems to be at least one exception to the impotence of those in Hades: their response to the preaching of Christ upon his descent. Belief in Christ’s “harrowing of hell” has been part of the faith of the Church from the beginning.18 Surely here we see that the dead can have some form of agency, after all—and if they did then, why not later?

 We may break this question down into two parts: first, to whom did Christ preach, and, second, what factors determined their reaction. As regards the scope of Christ’s preaching, its biblical description is in fact relatively narrow. 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). Taken at face value, this refers to a relatively small group of people.19 But already in the early centuries, to judge from the apocryphal literature, 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” (Gospel of Nicodemus 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).20 St. Irenaeus refers to those who were saved as “the righteous, the prophets, and the patriarchs,” evidently having in mind primarily (although perhaps not exclusively) the Old Testament saints.21 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.”22 Thus it was all the righteous, both Jews and gentiles, who heard and were saved.

 No doubt in saying this, Clement assumed that is was also only the righteous who were saved, for otherwise there would have been no point in adding this qualification.23 St. John Chrysostom makes this restriction explicit. Citing 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, he observes that the descent of Christ “indicates the destruction of the might of death, not the loosing of the sins of those who had died before his coming.”24The view that Christ by descending to Hades released all and only the righteous among both Jews and gentiles became, thereafter, virtually unanimous.25 Admittedly, what it means to be “righteous” in this context is far from clear. Chrysostom states that the fundamental requirement was “not to worship idols, and to know the true God.”26 St. Maximus the Confessor goes further, speculating that many of those who perished not only in the Flood, but later at the Tower of Babel, in Sodom, and during the plagues on Egypt—groups that surely included many idolaters—were ultimately saved when they responded in faith to Christ’s preaching.27

For our purposes, the important point is that to respond in faith required a certain prior disposition formed during earthly life. Such a response no doubt included repentance, but only in the weak sense of a rejection and disavowal of errors that had been committed in ignorance. Those who did not respond in faith were presumably those who had sinned not only in ignorance, but in full knowledge of the evil they were doing, and so had formed a settled character opposed to the good. To change such an ill-formed character requires a much deeper kind of repentance, and it is this that was and remains unavailable to the dead.28

 The Last Judgment

 On the Last Day all will be raised, so there will no longer be any disembodied souls. However, that hardly means that free action will be possible for all. There will be no “society of the damned,” and so no possibility of morally formative action, even if (as seems most unlikely) the damned had the will to perform it. So it seems that what was true of disembodied souls in the interim state will remain true of the damned, in essentials, after the resurrection.

 Nonetheless, the Fathers who have written about this subject draw attention to a quite different consideration, one that has nothing to do with the ability (or lack of it) for bodily action. They instead focus on the altered conditions of free choice that are present when God is at last wholly manifest as the Good. This leads quickly into some deep philosophical waters. Yet despite its difficulty, their teaching well repays attention, for it reveals much, not only about divine judgment and salvation, but about the relationship to God to free will.

 The most substantive discussion is undoubtedly that of St. Maximus the Confessor. Much of what Maximus has to say pertains primarily to the blessed and to the damned only indirectly. His most famous discussion of eschatological free will is in Ambigua 7. There he describes how, in the afterlife, “our free will (τὸ αὐτεξούσιον) . . . will have surrendered voluntarily and wholly to God, and perfectly subjected itself to His rule.”29 He explains that this is due to the overwhelming clarity of perception of God as the Good:

 All things without exception necessarily cease from their willful movement toward something else when the ultimate object of their desire and participation appears before them and is, if I may put it this way, contained in them uncontainably according to the measure of the participation of each . . . For in that state 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 (περιληφθέντων) in the ineffable manifestation and presence of God.30

Maximus goes on to give the analogy of how the sun by its overwhelming brightness renders the stars invisible. Helpful though it is, this analogy fails to capture the key point that lesser goods are “enveloped” within God as the Good; that is, all that is good in them is already precontained in God as their source.31 We might tweak the analogy slightly by imagining that the stars, like the moon, shine only as reflections of the sun. Then it would be true to say that when the sun appears, the light that had previously appeared in them is not only overwhelmed, but is more directly and truly manifest.32

 It will be noted that Maximus says specifically, “all things without exception cease from their willful movement toward something else.” Evidently, what he says here applies to the damned as well as the blessed. He 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 (τὸ ἀεὶ φεῦ εἶναι), 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, by which what is sought is naturally revealed to those who seek it.33

 As Maximus makes clear elsewhere, in saying that God “renders” eternal ill-being to the damned, he actually means that the same divine presence that is experienced by the blessed as bliss is experienced by the damned as torment. The difference is due solely to their own freely formed disposition. So Maximus explains in Ambigua 42 that God “offers Himself wholly and simply to all—worthy and unworthy—by grace through His infinite goodness, and . . . endows each with the permanence of eternal being, corresponding to the way that each disposes himself and is (διατέθειταί τε καὶ ἔστι).”34

 We face here something of a puzzle. Both the blessed and the damned enter into the full presence of God as the Good. Precisely because He is the Good, they both attain, in some sense, the object of their desire. Yet to the blessed the experience is bliss, whereas to the damned it is torment. Why?

 The answer lies in recalling that it is necessary not only to observe the Good as an external object, but to participate in Him. It is in this respect that the blessed and the damned differ sharply. The passage just cited from Ambigua 42 continues:

 For those who participate or do not participate proportionately in Him who, in the truest sense, is and is good, and is forever, there is an intensification and increase of punishment for those who cannot participate, and of enjoyment for those who can participate.35

 The underlying thought is that to be capable of participating in the Good requires oneself becoming good, to the extent that is within one’s power; and likewise, to fail to become good, or (worse) to become positively evil, brings with it an incapacity to participate in the Good. This is an axiom of patristic ontology that has roots in classical philosophy and was developed fully by the Cappadocians.36Maximus in effect adds to it that the capacity to participate or not is fixed at death, precisely because the full manifestation of the Good makes further morally formative action impossible.

 We can see now how Maximus can allow that many of those who perished in the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and so on were ultimately saved. It is quite likely that many of those who perished had sought the good in the best ways known to them, and so received the preaching of Christ in Hades with joy and a sense of recognition. As mentioned earlier, they had to repent only in the weak sense of disavowing actions done in ignorance. A much stronger form of repentance is required to turn around a character that has been shaped by repeatedly and stubbornly rejecting the known good.

 After Maximus, the next patristic author to deal with this subject at length was St. John of Damascus. He largely follows Maximus, although in a way that reflects his own distinctive concerns. In On the Orthodox Faith he is content simply to repeat the association of the ability to repent with the possession of a body: “although man, by reason of the infirmity of his body, is capable of repentance, the angel, because of his incorporeality, is not.”37 He goes on to add that there can be no repentance for demons after their fall, just as there can be none after death for man.38 Unfortunately, he does not explain these comments further.

 We find rather more in his dialogue Against the Manicheans. There John, much like Maximus, affirms that in the age to come God intentionally punishes no one. Rather, each makes himself capable of participating in God in his own way, a participation that is delight to some and punishment to others.39 John goes on to add that God always provides good things to all, but not all are willing to receive them, preferring instead various lesser goods that in the age to come will no longer be available.40 After death sinners still desire the pleasures of their former life, but there is no longer “the material by which to sin” (τὰς ὕλας τῆς ἁμαρτίας), so they exist in perpetual frustration, and this frustration is itself a form of punishment.41

 John thus offers two distinct ways of understanding eternal punishment: as the unmediated presence of God to those whose characters are such as to find His presence repugnant, and as the deprivation of the lesser goods that the soul, due to its own voluntary formation, eternally desires. Obviously these are not incompatible, and it would seem that in John’s mind they are simply different ways of describing the same state.

 The identification of the Last Judgment with the unmediated presence of God as the Good was developed and amplified by later authors. St. Symeon the New Theologian devotes to it the tenth of his Ethical Discourses. Like Maximus and John, he underscores that the response of each person to the unmediated presence of God is determined by the character that person has freely developed.

 He who is now invisible to all and dwells in light will then be revealed to all as He is, and will fill all things with His  light, and will be without evening, without end, a day of everlasting joy, but absolutely unapproachable and unseen for those who, like me, are lazy and sinners. Because this [that is, acclimation to God] did not happen while they yet lived, because they lacked zeal to see the light of His glory and, through purification, to have Him completely indwelling in themselves, He will also naturally be unapproachable for them in the future . . . For the divinity, which is to say the grace of the all-Holy Spirit, has never appeared to anyone who was without faith; and, if it were to appear by some paradox among men, it would show itself as fearful and dreadful, as not illumining but burning, not as giving life but punishing dreadfully.42

The saint’s parenthetical allusion to “those who, like me, are lazy and sinners” reminds us that only the utmost sobriety, and indeed fear, are appropriate to the awesome reality of the Last Judgment.

 What We Do Not Know

 Finally I would like to draw attention to a significant theme in Maximus which, although not directly relevant to the question of repentance after death, helps place his teaching on that point into context. This is that Maximus sees eternal damnation as, in some sense, a path to non-being. In Ambigua 20 he writes that the sages give names such as “sons of perdition” to:

those who by their disposition have set themselves on a course to nonexistence (τὸ μὴ ὂν ἑαυτοῑς ὑποστήσαντας),  and who by their mode of life have reduced themselves to virtual nothingness (τοῖς τρόποις αὐτῷ [sc. τὸ μὴ ὂν] διὰ  πάντων γενομένους παρεμφερεῑς).43

Likewise, in the next Ambiguum he describes the damned as

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 (τὴν ὑποστήσασαν τὸ μὴ ὂν διάθεσιν κατήγορον ἔχουσα, ἣν ἀγνοῆσαι οὐδέποτε δύναται).44

 It is plain that Maximus is not teaching here a form of annihilationism, for the reference to “infinite ages” shows that he assumes this state will continue forever. He is instead simply drawing out the implication of the identification of God, not only as the Good, but as Being itself and Life itself. Both passages present the state described as a consequence of the misuse of the natural powers bestowed by the Creator through a form of movement that is contrary to the creature’s intrinsic logoi of being. Since the logoi are what define what it is for that creature to be, the failure of their realization results in the creature diminishing into non-being (τὸ μὴ ὂν).45 Such non-being is not the loss of existence; it is continuation in existence, but in a state that is utterly contrary to the Creator’s intent. The diminishment into non-being is, in effect, Maximus’s interpretation of what it means that the ungodly are “like chaff which the wind drives away.”

 What is such a state like? Maximus does not elaborate further, other than in the grim depictions of the torments of hell that he offers in his epistles.46 Plainly there is not a total loss of conscious awareness. However, it seems quite plausible that a kind of psychological fragmentation takes place, such that the person who falls away into non-being becomes less and less capable of remembering, understanding, and articulating to himself either his own identity or the nature of the torment he is undergoing. C.S. Lewis depicts such a movement toward non-being vividly in the The Great Divorce, as well as in the figure of the “Un-man” in Perelandra. J.R.R. Tolkien does so as well in Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and Morgoth in the Silmarillion. All of these are cases where we see a being become so wrapped up in its own self-absorbed, spiteful, and ultimately futile schemes that it loses the natural powers that were its birthright. If such a view is correct, then we should not think of eternal torment as infinite continuance in the state of hell as it is initially experienced. Rather, it is a kind of asymptotic approach to non-being, in which some residual degree of awareness always remains, but one that is more and more diminished through psychic fragmentation.

 In fact, it is possible to carry this line of thought even further. We must also take into account the question of what is meant by continuation or duration in the eschaton. The Greek Fathers generally followed the ancient philosophers in seeing time as cognate with the physical cosmos.47 On such a view, time will end when the cosmos ends. Presumably there will be some other sequential framework for experience, but its precise nature is unknown to us. Given that the blessed in the eschaton will be “equal to angels” (Luke 20:36), it seems likely that they will experience a mode of sequentiality that is different from that of the damned—just as, according to patristic teaching, the angels currently experience a form of sequentiality that is different from our own.48 If so, then we really do not know what relation there will be between the mode of sequentiality experienced by the blessed and that of the damned. It may well be that the entire infinity of the quasi-time of the damned will fit into the briefest moment of that of the blessed, much as between any two numbers there are an infinity of others.49 In such a case, although the suffering of the damned would be experienced by them as unending (albeit perhaps in an incoherent, disintegrating way), from the standpoint of the rest of creation it would be over in an instant. This would be another way in which—to again quote the Psalmist—“the way of the wicked will perish.”

 Obviously any such conjectures are speculative. The point is simply that we do not know precisely how to interpret the awesome and terrifying words of the Lord regarding the final state of the damned. We know that their state will be dreadful, and that it will involve in some sense (subject to the qualifications noted above) unending suffering. We also know that it is, in some sense, a descent into non-being, as indicated by the recurrent imagery of destruction and being cast into “outer darkness.” Beyond this, we can only speculate. As so often in such matters, we are told what we need to know in order to guide our own conduct, and no more.

 What Is At Stake?

 What is ultimately at stake in the matters discussed here? Most obviously, there is the veracity of Scripture. Many find the teaching of Scripture on the Last Judgment and the fate of the damned so repugnant that they either dismiss it altogether or seek some way to set aside the parts that they find unpalatable. For this reason alone it is well worthwhile to see how the scriptural teaching, understood as the Church has always understood it, is plausible and makes sense.

 With the traditional teaching there also stands or falls that sense of sobriety in preparing for the Last Judgment that we mentioned at the outset. It is certainly understandable that many people prefer not to live with such a sense of sobriety. No doubt they find it stifling and oppressive. I hope the discussion of divine judgment offered here will make it plain why the Church has formed precisely the opposite view. For the Church and her piety—as expressed in the divine services, the lives of the saints, and the teaching of the Fathers—it is only by living in the remembrance of Christ as Judge that each of us is able to become the person that God intended us to be. Fear of the Judgment is never merely fear, but the embrace of our ultimate destiny as creatures made for fellowship with God.

 That brings me to my final point: that what is at stake ultimately includes the very nature of salvation. As we have seen, the fundamental premise that shapes the traditional teaching is that salvation consists in coming to know God and to be known by Him. All else—the importance of obedience, of the heart, of repentance, and the nature of judgment itself—takes shape around this central premise. It is certainly possible to think of salvation in other ways. One might think of it as simply a balancing of deeds, for instance, or as a kind of cosmic lottery (some receiving salvific grace, and some not), or as a kind of purification that necessarily accrues to the soul upon a sufficient amount of suffering. All of these have had their advocates, and all overlap with the traditional view in interesting ways. But ultimately they are only human constructions. For the follower of Christ, he alone knows the path to salvation, and the highest wisdom lies in heeding his words.


  1. See (besides the texts discussed below) Lawrence R. Farley, Unquenchable Fire: The Traditional Christian Teaching about Hell(Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2017) passim, especially 51, 122, 125, 152-53, 157, 159, 178.
  2. For example, Thomas Talbott, “The Doctrine of Everlasting Punishment,” Faith and Philosophy 7 (1990), 19-42; C.P. Ragland, “Love and Damnation,” in Kevin Timpe, ed., Metaphysics and God: Essays in Honor of Eleonore Stump (New York: Routledge, 2009), 206-24; cf. Thomas Talbott, “Universalism” in Jerry Walls, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 446-61.
  3. See Nicholas Constas, “‘To Sleep, Perchance to Dream’: The Middle State of Souls in Patristic and Byzantine Literature,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 55 (2001), 91-124; Jean-Claude Larchet, Life after Death according to the Orthodox Tradition(Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2012); Vasileios Marinis, Death and the Afterlife in Byzantium: The Fate of the Soul in Theology, Liturgy, and Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
  4. Such a belief was especially prominent in the Syriac and Nestorian traditions, although it also appeared occasionally in Byzantium, particularly among the Iconoclasts. See discussion in Constas, “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream,” 109-12; Marinis, Death and the Afterlife in Byzantium, 88-89; Dirk Krausmuller, “Sleeping Souls and Living Corpses: Patriarch Methodius’ Defence of the Cult of Saints,” Byzantion 85 (2015), 143-55.
  5. See Matt. 3:7-10, 7:21-27, 12:31-37, 13:47-50, 16:28, 25:31-46, Mark 8:38, 9:39-50, Luke 9:26, 12:16-21, 42-48, 13:24-30, John 5:28-29, Acts 17:30-31, Rom. 2:5-10, 14:10-12, II Cor. 5:10, II Thess. 1:6-10, Rev. 20:11-15.
  6. Biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version.
  7. Indeed, the story is introduced by the words, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21), so its very purpose is to emphasize the importance of deeds.
  8. I follow here the K.J.V. rather than the R.S.V. (“that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God”), since the latter wrongly suggests that the one doing such deeds does them in order that they become manifest. All the Greek says is that the deeds do in fact become manifest, without reference to anyone’s particular intent.
  9. For the judgment of the heart see I Sam. 16:7, I Kings 8:39, II Chron. 6:30, Jer. 17:9-10, 24:7, Ezek. 11:19-20, and for kardiognostessee Acts 1:24, 15:8. I have discussed these and related texts in “The Mind and the Heart in the Christian East and West,” Faith and Philosophy 26 (2009), 576-98.
  10. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Hebrews 9.8; cf. similar discussions at Ibid., 12.7, 31.3-6, Homilies on Matthew 10.6-7, Homilies on II Corinthians 4.6, and Three Homilies concerning the Powers of Demons II.6 (using the section numbers in NPNF).
  11. John Chrysostom, Homilies on John 34.3 (PG 59 497; trans. NPNF, Series I, vol. 14, 121).
  12. Funeral service, Idomela Tone 2; Service Book of the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church, Sixth edition (Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, 1980), 193.
  13. Blessed Theophylact, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, PG 123 921C; trans. Christopher Stade, The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom Press, 1997), 173.
  14. According to Larchet, “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 totally 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.” Larchet, Life after Death according to the Orthodox Tradition, 223-24. For detailed discussion of the cases of Trajan and Falconille see Jeffrey Trumbrower, Rescue for the Dead: The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
  15. Thus Larchet, immediately after the passage previously quoted, 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 however 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.” Larchet, Life after Death according to the Orthodox Tradition, 224-25. St. Mark of Ephesus spoke in this connection of hoi mesoi, “those in the middle,” who had committed relatively minor sins of which they had not repented; these are ultimately saved through the prayers of the Church, whereas great sinners who made no repentance can be aided only in relieving the severity of their punishment. See Marinis, Death and the Afterlife in Byzantium, 77-79, 97-106.
  16. See Marinis, Death and the Afterlife in Byzantium, 78-79.
  17. See Marinis, Death and the Afterlife in Byzantium, 104.
  18. See Eph. 4:8-10, I Peter 3:18-19, 4:6.
  19. A few verses later there is a reference to the Gospel being preached “even to the dead” (4:6), but this may be merely a reference back to what was stated more fully earlier. The other main biblical text on Christ’s descent, Eph. 4:8-10, gives no specific information about the audience.
  20. See M.R. James, ed., The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), 124, 139, 167, 494, with further citations and discussion in Trumbrower, Rescue for the Dead, 91-108, and Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 20-42.
  21. Irenaeus, Against Heresies IV.27.2 (PG 6 1058C; ANF vol. 1, 499).
  22. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata VI.6.45 (GCS 15, 454; trans. ANF, vol. 2, 490); cf. Ibid., II.9.43-44, citing to similar effect the Shepherd of Hermas.
  23. Clement goes on to add that all who believed were saved, “especially since souls, although darkened by passions, when released from their bodies are able to perceive more clearly because of their being no longer obstructed by the paltry flesh” (VI.6.46; ANF vol. 2, 491). It is sometimes suggested that Clement envisions here universal salvation. That is unlikely, however, for he clearly assumes that only some of those within Hades responded in belief, namely, those who were generally righteous but did evil out of ignorance.
  24. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew 36.3 (PG 57 416; trans. NPNF, Series I, vol. 10, 241).
  25. See the surveys in Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror, 52-81, and Trumbrower, Rescue for the Dead, 91-108, with some clarifications regarding Cyril in Daniel Keating, “Christ’s Despoiling of Hades according to Cyril of Alexandria,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 55 (2011), 253-69.
  26. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew 36.3.
  27. Maximus the Confessor, To Thalassius 7.2. Maximus is commenting here on the statement of I Peter that “the Gospel was preached even to the dead, so that they might be judged according to man in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (4:6). He interprets being “judged according to man in the flesh” to indicate that some had been sufficiently punished by their mutual reproaches and accusations in this life.
  28. One might still ask whether it is fair that those who died before Christ were freed from Hades by his preaching, whereas those who died afterward must await the Last Judgment. To this the obvious reply is that both groups had to spend time in Hades, so there is no difference between them on that account. A harder question is whether it is fair that some have to spend a much longer time there than others, e.g., someone who dies in 100 A.D. spends 1900 years longer than someone who dies in 2000 A.D. Here it is important to remember that we do not know how what we call time is experienced by disembodied souls. Since they are not part of the physical world, it may seem to pass at a different rate for them than for us, and even differently for one soul than for another. No doubt God, as the righteous Judge, adjusts such matters as is suitable to each case.
  29. Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua 7.11, ed. and trans. Nicholas Constas, Maximos Confessor: On Difficulties in the Church Fathers(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), vol. 1, 89.
  30. Maximus, Ambigua 7.12; ed. and trans. Constas, vol. 1, 91-93.
  31. See the similar description by Dionysius the Areopagite of how the sun precontains (προείληφε) the causes of all visible things (Divine Names 5.8, PG 4 824C).
  32. See also Ambigua 15.7: in the presence of God “every motion of what is naturally moved ceases, henceforth having nowhere, and no means whereby, and nothing to which it could be moved, since it has attained its goal and cause, which is God, who is Himself the limit of the infinity itself that limits all motion” (ed. and trans. Constas, vol. 1, 369, slightly modified); also a similar statement at To Thalassius 22.7.
  33. Maximus, Ambigua 65.3; ed. and trans. Constas, vol. 2, 281.
  34. Maximus, Ambigua 42.15 (ed. and trans. Constas, vol. 2, 149); cf. the similar statement at To Thalassius 59.8.That the torments of hell are primarily self-induced is a patristic commonplace, e.g., Irenaeus, Against Heresies V.27.2 (“on as many as, according to their own choice, depart from God, He inflicts separation from Himself,” PG 7 1196B); Basil, Homily Explaining that God is not the Cause of Evil, sect. 3 (“the evils in hell do not have God as their cause, but we cause them; for the beginning and root of sin is in us and our free will,” PG 31 332C-D); Gregory Nazianzen, Orations 16.8-9. Elsewhere Maximus expounds more fully on the implications of separation from God: “What is more wretched and oppressive than anything else—and if it makes me grieve just to mention it, then how much worse to suffer it (have mercy, O Christ, and save us from this pain!)—is separation from God and his holy powers, and belonging to the devil and the evil demons, a state which lasts forever, without any prospect of our ever being liberated from this dire situation . . . And more punishing, more severe than any penalty is to be joined forever with those who hate and are hated—even apart from torture, and all the more with it—and to be separated from the one who loves and is loved.” Epistle 1, PG 91 389A-B; trans. Brian Daley, “Apokatastasis and ‘Honorable Silence‘ in the Eschatology of Maximus the Confessor,” Maximus Confessor: Actes du Symposium sur Maxime le Confesseur, eds. Felix Heinzer and Christoph Schönborn (Fribourg: Éditions universitaires Fribourg, 1982), 309-39, at 334-35; cf. similar statements cited Ibid., n. 107.
  35. Maximus, Ambigua 42.15; ed. and trans. Constas, vol. 2, 149.
  36. See David Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 172-78, 197-201.
  37. John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith 17 (= II.3); ed. P. Bonifatius Kotter, Die Schriften des Johannes von Damaskos (Berlin: De Gruyter,1969-88), vol. 2, 46, trans. FOC 37, 206.
  38. Ibid., 18 (= II.4); see also 44 (= II.30), stating that it was best for man not to attain incorruption while still untested, since it was “by reason of his incorruptibility” that the Devil, having fallen, could no longer repent.
  39. John of Damascus, Against the Manicheans 44 (PG 94 1548A). Although this important work has not been translated into English, there are translations of some important excerpts in Andrew Louth, St John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 65-71.
  40. Ibid., 71 (PG 94 1569B-C).
  41. Ibid., 75 (PG 94 1573A-C).
  42. Symeon the New Theologian, Ethical Discourses 10; trans. Alexander Golitzin, St. Symeon the New Theologian: On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses, vol. 1 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’ Seminary Press, 1995), 143-45.
  43. Maximus, Ambigua 20.2; ed. and trans. Constas, vol. 1, 411.
  44. Ibid., 21.12; ed. and trans. Constas, vol. 1, 439. The last part could be rendered more literally, “having as an accuser a disposition that established in reality non-being, and which it can no longer ignore.
  45. According to Alexander Golitzin, “The λόγοι are therefore our personal and foreordained vocations to which we may or may not choose to become conformed, or better—since they remain transcendent by virtue of their source in God—to which we may choose to be ever in process of becoming conformed in order thus to share, as it were, in the eternal process of our own creation.” Alexander Golitzin, Mystagogy: A Monastic Reading of Dionysius Areopagita (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013), 116. For a full-length study of the theme of self-creation in Maximus see Nikolaos Loudovikos, A Eucharistic Ontology: Maximus the Confessor’ Eschatological Ontology of Being as Dialogical Reciprocity (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2010).
  46. See above, n. 34.
  47. See David Bradshaw, “Time and Eternity in the Greek Fathers,” The Thomist 70 (2006), 311-66, especially 336-37 (St. Basil), 345 (John of Scythopolis), and 350-51 (Maximus).
  48. See Bradshaw, “Time and Eternity,” 337-41, on the treatment of the angelic aeon by St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nyssa.
  49. More complex kinds of relationship are also possible. In The Magician’ Nephew, C.S. Lewis envisions a vast number of different universes each with its own temporal ordering. They are inaccessible to one another directly but can be accessed through the “wood between the worlds,” which in turn has its own master time. What duration will have passed in one universe while a person from that universe enters the wood between the worlds (and perhaps from there another universe), only to eventually return again, is unpredictable.

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