I think it has to be admitted (though I welcome correction) that the majority position of the Church, at least during the past 1,5000 years or so, approximates the position advanced by Darlene, namely, that the opportunity for repentance no longer exists after our biological death. At St John of Damascus puts it: "[W]hat in the case of man is death is a fall in the case of angels. For after the fall there is no possibility of repentance for them, just as after death there is for men no repentance" (Orthodox Faith II.4). On this view, one's fundamental orientation toward God, either toward him or away from him, is irreversibly established at death. From that point on, it is simply a matter of fulfilling and consummating one's definitive life-choice. This is most certainly the dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church, as reiterated in Pope Benedict's encyclical Spe salvi
With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.
Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God's judgement according to each person's particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.
Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart's time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).
Pope Benedict's understanding of Hell, Heaven, and Purgatory is elaborated at length in his book Eschatology
. Contemporary Catholic theologians have clearly abandoned the theologoumenon that the purifying fire of Purgatory is a created, physical fire. I wonder how the discussions at the Council of Florence might have gone if this outstanding theologian had been present.
Pope Benedict's Eschatology
should be read alongside Metropolitan Hierotheos' book Life After Death
. The similarities and differences are illuminating. Like Benedict, and following St Mark of Ephesus, Met Hierotheos believes that "the will can be changed as long as a man is in this life, whereas after death it remains immovable" (p. 175). Compare the following passages with the quoted passage above from Pope Benedict:
According to the teaching of the authoritative Fathers, if a person had entered the stage of repentance before his death but had not been purified, the cure would continue in him "in perpetuity," since virtue does not have an end. This, to be sure, does not refer to those who of their own choice remained completely unrepentant and had not entered the stage of repentance. Besides, the saints teach that the angels too will be increasingly receptive of divine grace, in which case even for angels we can use the word purification. (p. 298)
At the Second Coming of Christ nature will be restored, but the will will not be restored. All will gain immortality, the bodies of all will rise again, but the will and man's personal opinion will not change. They will continue there too according to the choice with which they lived in their biological life. Even the sinners will have knowledge of God, will see God, but they will not have participation. Punishment is not the absence of God, but non-participation in God, the presence of God as a fire. … All will rise again, but they will not all glorify Him. Christ's resurrection is a gift which was given to all, but the ascension will be experienced only by the saints. Therefore in all there will be a restoration of nature, which will remain forever, immortal, but there will not be a restoration of the will, since each person will perceive Christ according to his choice. (p. 312)
After death, the soul goes to either Hades or Paradise, depending on its spiritual condition, there to await the final judgment: "If the soul had not been healed while it was united with the body, after its departure from it it suffers and is tormented by the passions, it feels no comfort and consolation, it has no share in the illuminating and deifying energy of God, and this is a dark, dim way of life, a torment, a torture. It is called Hades. By contrast the righteous, after departing this life, live in Paradise, in Abraham's bosom. In other words, they participate in the illuminating and deifying energy of God" (p. 92). But within the group who live in Hades, Hierotheos acknowledges a difference between obstinately impenitent sinners and those who have died in the faith but are still burdened by small sins and and the the disorder of the passions. The Church rightly prays for this latter group in the hope that God will forgive their sins, but there can be no remission of sins for those who are guilty of unrepented mortal sin. Met Hierotheos favorably cites the judgment of the 1722 Council of Constantinople:
We, the godly, following the truth and turning away from such innovations, confess and accept two places for the souls of the dead, paradise and hell, for the righteous and sinners, as the holy Scripture teaches us. We do not accept a third place, a purgatory, by any means, since neither Scripture nor the holy Fathers have taught us any such thing. However, we believe that these two places have many abodes. … None of the teachers of the Church have handed down or taught such a purgatory, but they all speak of one single place of punishment, hades, just as they teach about one luminous and bright place, paradise. But both places also have different abodes as we said; and since the souls of the holy and righteous go indisputably to paradise and those of the sinners go to hell, of whom the profane and those who have sinned unforgivably are punished forever and those who have offended forgivably and moderately hope to gain freedom through the unspeakable mercy of God. For on behalf of such souls, that is of the moderately and signal, there are in the Church prayers, supplications, liturgies, as well as memorial services and almsgiving, that those souls may receive favor and comfort.
I read in neither Pope Benedict nor Met Hierotheos an eschatological hope for the salvation of all. Both seem to know that there will be some, perhaps many, who have rejected and will eternally reject the mercy of God. Both men, however, do envision a process of continuing purification for those who die in a state of incomplete repentance and openness to God. For these individuals, the prayers of the Church can be of great and essential benefit.