Can the Dead Repent?

zombie fear

by Fr. John Whiteford

Question: “If someone dies without repentance, is it possible for such a person to repent after death?”

Scripture, as explained by the Fathers of the Church, states that this is not possible.

Psalm 6:5 says:

“For in death there is none that is mindful of Thee, and in hades who will confess Thee?”

Commenting on this passage, St. John Chrysostom says:

“[The Prophet David is] not implying that our existence lasts only as far as this present life: perish the thought! After all, he is aware of the doctrine of the resurrection. Rather, it is that after our departure from here there would be no time for repentance. For the rich man praised God and repented, but in view of its lateness it did him no good [Luke 16:19-31]. The virgins wanted to get some oil, but no one gave any to them [Matthew 25:1-13]. So this is what this mane requests, too, for his sins to be washed away in this life so as to enjoy confidence at the tribunal of the fearsome judge” (St. John Chrysostom: Commentary on the Psalms, vol. I, trans. Robert C. Hill (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998), p. 102).

St. Jerome says:

“While you are still in this world, I beg of you to repent. Confess and give thanks to the Lord, for in this world only is he merciful. Here, he is able to be compassionate to the repentant, but because there he is judge, he is not merciful. Here, he is compassionate kindness; there, he is judge. Here, he reaches out his hand to the falling; there, he presides as judge” (Homily on Psalm 105[106], quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament, Vol. VII, Craig A. Blaising and Carmen S. Hardin, eds. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2008) p. 51).

St. Gregory the Theologian says:

“… it is better to be punished and cleansed now than to be transmitted to the torment to come, when it is the time of chastisement, not of cleansing.  For as he who remembers God here is conqueror of death (as David has most excellently sung) so the departed have not in the grave confession and restoration; for God has confined life and action to this world, and to the future the scrutiny of what has been done” (On His Father’s Silence, Oration 16:7).

St. Basil the Great says:

“In like manner they which have grieved the Holy Spirit by the wickedness of their ways, or have not wrought for Him that gave to them, shall be deprived of what they have received, their grace being transferred to others; or, according to one of the evangelists, they shall even be wholly cut asunder, —the cutting asunder meaning complete separation from the Spirit.  The body is not divided, part being delivered to chastisement, and part let off; for when a whole has sinned it were like the old fables, and unworthy of a righteous judge, for only the half to suffer chastisement.  Nor is the soul cut in two,—that soul the whole of which possesses the sinful affection throughout, and works the wickedness in co-operation with the body. The cutting asunder, as I have observed, is the eternal separation of the soul from the Spirit.  For now, although the Spirit does not suffer admixture with the unworthy, He nevertheless does seem in a manner to be present with them that have once been sealed, awaiting the salvation which follows on their conversion; but then He will be wholly cut off from the soul that has defiled His grace.  For this reason “In Hades there is none that maketh confession; in death none that remembereth God,” because the help of the Spirit is no longer present” (Treatise on the Holy Spirit, 40).

Blessed Theodoret says:

“For this reason I beg the privilege of enjoying the cure in the present life, since I know that no cure will then be granted those departing this life with wounds, as there is no longer any room for repentance. This was exceptionally sound thinking on the part of the divine David: it is not in death but in life that one recalls God. Likewise, confession and reform do not come to the departed in Hades: God confined life and action to this life; there, however, he conducts an evaluation of performance. And in any case this is proper to to theeighth day, giving no longer opportunity for preparation by good or bad deeds to those who have arrived at it; instead, whatever works you have sown for yourself you will have occasion to reap. For this reason he obliges you to practice repentance here, there being no practice of this kind of effort in Hades. He says, in fact, “Since the opportunity coming to me for repentance was lengthy, I am afraid death may precede your mercy, there being no room for confession there — hence my request for your to be quick with your mercy.” Then he instructs the listener that along with God’s loving-kindness our effort is required, too: whether we plead weakness or confusion or God’s goodness without contributing what is ours, it is of no benefit to us” (Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentary on the Psalms, 1-72, trans. Robet C. Hill (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2000), p. 75).

St. Augustine says:

“”For in death there is no one that is mindful of Thee.” He knows too that now is the time for turning unto God: for when this life shall have passed away, there remaineth but a retribution of our deserts. “But in hell who shall confess to Thee?” That rich man, of whom the Lord speaks, who saw Lazarus in rest, but bewailed himself in torments, confessed in hell, yea so as to wish even to have his brethren warned, that they might keep themselves from sin, because of the punishment which is not believed to be in hell. Although therefore to no purpose, yet he confessed that those torments had deservedly lighted upon him; since he even wished his brethren to be instructed, lest they should fall into the same” (Commentary on the Psalms 6:6).

Cassiodorus says:

“This may elicit the question, why does he say that in death no-one is mindful of God, whereas then we can be made to tremble more by the imminent anger of God? But when we speak of those unmindful of God, this properly refers to the unfaithful. Isaiah said of them: For those in hell will not praise thee, nor will those who are dead bless thee. When Paul says: In the name of of Jesus let every knee bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, the statement should be taken as referring only to the faithless and obstinate, who deserve to have no trust placed in their confession. So the psalmist rightly hastens to gain acquittal here, since once the sun has set nothing remains except deserved retribution. Who shall confess to thee in hell? We must mentally add “to win pardon.” Compare Solomon’s words on impious men: For they will say among themselves, repenting and groaning for anguish of spirit, and the rest. Then too we know that the rich man who saw Lazarus settled in peace confessed his evil plight, but he was not heard praying for help because it is in this world that confession connotes also obtaining pardon. To help us realize that some distinction is being made in the words of the verse, in death means passing from life, whereas in hellmeans hugging the place where souls are known to endure what they have deserved. There is total denial that a confession can be made in each of these situations” (Cassiodorus:Explanation of the Psalms, Vol. 1, trans. P. G. Walsh, (New York: Paulist Press,1990), p. 94f).

We find a very similar passage in Isaiah 38:18-19, which Cassiodorus references:

“For they that are in the grave shall not praise thee, neither shall the dead bless thee, neither shall they that are in Hades hope for thy mercy. The living shall bless thee, as I also do: for from this day shall I beget children, who shall declare thy righteousness.”

St. Cyril of Alexandria says:

“What is said in the psalm verse contains sentiments similar to this passage, “What value is there in my death if I descend into corruption? Dust will not praise you or proclaim your marvels [Psalm 29[30]:9].” In other words, once dead, and enclosed in the gates of Hades, they will cease giving praise. Nothing further could be added to what has been achieved; instead, they will remain in the condition in which they were left, and will await the time of the general judgment. So he is saying that it is the living, with the power of doing good on receipt of benefits who will bless you, as I do” (Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary on Isaiah, Vol. II, trans. Robert C. Hill (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2008), p. 300).

So here you have all of the Three Great Hierarchs, along with two great Latin Saints, St. Cyril of Alexandria (the preeminent Father of the Third Ecumenical Council), as well as two notable patristic commentators all saying essentially the same thing: the time for repentance is in this life. If you have not repented before death, it will then be too late.

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Sermon On The Prodigal Son

by St. Cyril of Alexandria

I hear one of the holy prophets trying to win unto repentance those who are far from God, and saying,

“Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God: for you have become weak in your iniquity. Take with you words, and return to the Lord our God.”

What sort of words then did he, under the influence of the Spirit, command them to take with them? Or were they not such as become those who wish to repent; such namely, as would appease God, Who is gentle, and loves mercy. For He even said by one of the holy prophets,

“Return you returning children, and I will heal your breaches.”

And yet again by the voice of Ezekiel,

“Return you altogether from your wickednesses, O house of Israel. Cast away from you all your iniquities which you have committed, that they be not to you for a punishment of iniquity. For I have no pleasure in the death of the sinner, as that he should turn from his evil way and live.”

And the same truth Christ here also teaches us, by this most beautifully composed parable, which I will now to the best of my ability endeavour to discuss, briefly gathering up its broad statements, and explaining and defending the ideas which it contains.

It is the opinion then of some, that by the two sons are signified the holy angels, and we the dwellers upon earth: and that the elder one, who lived soberly, represents the company of the holy angels, while the younger and profligate son is the human race. And there are some among us who give it a different explanation, arguing that by the elder and well conducted son is signified Israel after the flesh: while by the other, whose choice it was to live in the lust of pleasures, and who removed far from his father, is depicted the company of the Gentiles. With these explanations I do not agree: but I would have him who loves instruction, search after that which is true and unobjectionable. What then I say is as follows,

“giving occasions to the wise, and to the just offering knowledge,”

as Scripture commands: for they will examine for a fitting meaning the explanations proposed to them. If then we refer the upright son to the person of the holy angels, we do not find him speaking such words as become them, nor sharing their feelings towards repentant sinners, who turn from an impure life to that conduct which is worthy of admiration. For the Saviour of all and Lord says, that

“there is joy in heaven before the holy angels over one sinner that repents.”

But the son, who is described to us in the present parable as being acceptable unto his father, and leading a blameless life, is represented as being angry, and as even having proceeded so far in his unloving sentiments as to find fault with his father for his natural affection for him who was saved.

“For he would not, it says, go into the house,”

being vexed at the reception of the penitent almost before he had come to his senses, and because there had even been slain the calf in his honour, and his father had made for him a feast. But this, as I said, is at variance with the feelings of the holy angels: for they rejoice and praise God when they see the inhabitants of the earth being saved. For so when the Son submitted to be born in the flesh of a woman at Bethlehem, they carried the joyful news to the shepherds, saying,

“Fear you not: for behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy that shall be to all the people, that there is born to you today in the city of David a Saviour Who is Christ the Lord.”

And crowning with lauds and praises Him Who was born, they said,

“Glory to God in the highest, and upon earth peace, and among men good will.”

But if any one say, that Israel according to the flesh is meant by the virtuous and sober son, we are again prevented from assenting to this opinion by the fact, that in no way whatsoever is it fitting to say of Israel that he chose a blameless life. For throughout the whole of the inspired Scripture, so to say, we may see them accused of being rebels and disobedient. For they were told by the voice of Jeremiah,

“What fault have your fathers found in Me, that they have wandered far from Me, and have gone after vanities, and become vain?”

And in similar terms God somewhere spoke by the voice of Isaiah,

“This people draws near unto Me; with their lips they honour Me, but their heart is very far from Me: but in vain do they fear Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

And how then can any one apply to those who are thus blamed the words used in the parable of the virtuous and sober son? For he said,

“Lo! all these years do I serve you, and never have I transgressed your commandment.”

But they would not have been blamed for their mode of life, had it not been that transgressing the divine commandments, they betook themselves to a careless and polluted mode of life.

And yet again,for I think it right to mention this also,some would refer to the person of our Saviour that fatted calf which the father killed when his son was called unto conversion. But how then could the virtuous son, who is described as wise and prudent, and constant in his duty, and whom some even refer to the person of the holy angels, treat it as a reason for anger and vexation that the calf was slain? For one can find no proof of the powers above being grieved when Christ endured death in the flesh, and, so to speak, was slain in our behalf. Rather they rejoiced, as I said, in seeing the world saved by His holy blood. And what reason too had the virtuous son for saying

“you never gave me a kid.”

For what blessing is wanting to the holy angels, inasmuch as the Lord of all has bestowed upon them with bounteous hand a plentiful supply of spiritual gifts? Or of what sacrifice stood they in need as regards their own state? For there was no necessity for the Emmanuel to suffer also in their behalf. But if any one imagine, as I have already said before, that the carnal Israel is meant by the virtuous and sober son, how can he say with truth

“you never gave me a kid?”

For whether we call it calf or kid, Christ is to be understood as the sacrifice offered for sin. But He was sacrificed, not for the Gentiles only, but that He might also redeem Israel, who by reason of his frequent transgression of the law had brought upon himself great blame. And the wise Paul bears witness to this, saying,

“For this reason Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people by His blood, suffered outside the gate.”

What then is the object of the parable? Let us examine the occasion which led to it; for so we shall learn the truth. The blessed Luke therefore had himself said a little before of Christ the Saviour of us all,

“And all the publicans and sinners drew near unto Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and Scribes murmured saying, This man receives sinners and eats ” with them.

As therefore the Pharisees and Scribes made this outcry at His gentleness and love to man, and wickedly and impiously blamed Him for receiving and teaching men whose lives were impure, Christ very necessarily set before them the present parable, to show them clearly this very thing, that the God of all requires even him who is thoroughly steadfast, and firm, and who knows how to live in a holy manner, and has attained to the highest praise for sobriety of conduct, to be earnest in following His will, so that when any are called unto repentance, even if they be men highly blameable, he must rejoice rather, and not give way to an unloving vexation on their account.

For we also sometimes experience something of this sort. For some there are who live a perfectly honourable and consistent life, practising every kind of virtuous action, and abstaining from every thing disapproved by the law of God, and crowning themselves with perfect praises in the sight of God and of men: while another is perhaps weak and trodden down, and humbled unto every kind of wickedness, guilty of base deeds, loving impurity, given to covetousness, and stained with all evil. And yet such a one often in old age turns unto God, and asks the forgiveness of his former offences: he prays for mercy, and putting away from him his readiness to fall into sin, sets his affection on virtuous deeds. Or even perhaps when about to close his mortal life, he is admitted to divine baptism, and puts away his offences, God being merciful unto him. And perhaps sometimes persons are indignant at this, and even say,

‘This man, who has been guilty of such and such actions, and has spoken such and such words, has not paid unto the judge the retribution of his conduct, but has been counted worthy of a grace thus noble and admirable: he has been inscribed among the sons of God, and honoured with the glory of the saints.’

Such complaints men sometimes give utterance too from an empty narrowness of mind, not conforming to the purpose of the universal Father. For He greatly rejoices when He sees those who were lost obtaining salvation, and raises them up again to that which they were in the beginning, giving them the dress of freedom, and adorning them with the chief robe, and putting a ring upon their hand, even the orderly behaviour which is pleasing to God and suitable to the free.

It is our duty, therefore, to conform ourselves to that which God wills: for He heals those who are sick; He raises those who are fallen; He gives a helping hand to those who have stumbled; He brings back him who has wandered; He forms anew unto a praiseworthy and blameless life those who were wallowing in the mire of sin; He seeks those who were lost; He raises as from the dead those who had suffered the spiritual death. Let us also rejoice: let us, in company with the holy angels, praise Him as being good, and loving unto men; as gentle, and not remembering evil. For if such is our state of mind, Christ will receive us, by Whom and with Whom, to God the Father be praise and dominion with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever, Amen.
HT: Mystagogy
St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, Sermon CVII.

The Mission Of The Twelve

by St. Cyril of Alexandria

Our father among the saints Cyril of Alexandria was the Pope of Alexandria at the time Alexandria was at its height in influence and power within the Roman Empire. Cyril wrote extensively and was a leading protagonist in the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries. He was a central figure in the Council of Ephesus in 431 which led to the deposition of Nestorius as Archbishop of Constantinople.

Cyril is among the patristic fathers, and his reputation within the Orthodox Christian world has led to his acquiring the title “Seal of all the Fathers.”

Our Lord Jesus Christ has appointed certain men to be guides and teachers of the world and stewards of his divine mysteries. Now he bids them to shine out like lamps and to cast out their light not only over the land of the Jews but over every country under the sun and over people scattered in all directions and settled in distant lands. That man has spoken truly who said: No one takes honor upon himself, except the one who is called by God, for it was our Lord Jesus Christ who called his own disciples before all others to a most glorious apostolate. These holy men became the pillar and mainstay of the truth, and Jesus said that he was sending them just as the Father had sent him.

By these words he is making clear the dignity of the apostolate and the incomparable glory of the power given to them, but he is also, it would seem, giving them a hint about the methods they are to adopt in their apostolic mission. For if Christ thought it necessary to send out his intimate disciples in this fashion, just as the Father had sent him, then surely it was necessary that they whose mission was to be patterned on that of Jesus should see exactly why the Father had sent the Son. And so Christ interpreted the character of his mission to us in a variety of ways. Once he said: I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance. And then at another time he said: I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. For God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

Accordingly, in affirming that they are sent by him just as he was sent by the Father, Christ sums up in a few words the approach they themselves should take to their ministry. From what he said they would gather that it was their vocation to call sinners to repentance, to heal those who were sick whether in body or spirit, to seek in all their dealings never to do their own will but the will of him who sent them, and as far as possible to save the world by their teaching.

Surely it is in all these respects that we find his holy disciples striving to excel. To ascertain this is no great labor, a single reading of the Acts of the Apostles or of Saint Paul’s writings is enough.

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Exegetical Sermon 145 on the Passion

by St. Cyril of Alexandria

Our father among the saints Cyril of Alexandria was the Pope of Alexandria at the time Alexandria was at its height in influence and power within the Roman Empire. Cyril wrote extensively and was a leading protagonist in the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries. He was a central figure in the Council of Ephesus in 431 which led to the deposition of Nestorius as Archbishop of Constantinople. His reputation within the Orthodox Christian world has led to his acquiring the title “Seal of all the Fathers.”

SERMON CXLV

Luke 22:35-38. And He said to them, When I sent you without purse and without bag and shoes, lacked you anything? And they said, Nothing. And He said to them, But now, he that has a purse, let him take it: and in like manner also a bag: and he that has not one, let him sell his garment, and buy a sword. For I say to you, that this that is written must be accomplished in Me, that he was numbered also with the transgressors. For that which concerns Me has an end. And they said, Lord, behold here are two swords. And He said to them, It is enough.

The blessed Moses impressed the fear of God upon the Israelites by saying,

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God: for our God is a consuming fire.” Continue reading Exegetical Sermon 145 on the Passion

Exegetical Sermon 144 on the Passion

by St. Cyril of Alexandria

Our father among the saints Cyril of Alexandria was the Pope of Alexandria at the time Alexandria was at its height in influence and power within the Roman Empire. Cyril wrote extensively and was a leading protagonist in the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries. He was a central figure in the Council of Ephesus in 431 which led to the deposition of Nestorius as Archbishop of Constantinople. His reputation within the Orthodox Christian world has led to his acquiring the title “Seal of all the Fathers.”

SERMON CXLIV

Luke 22:31-34. Simeon, Simeon, behold Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you that your faith fail not: and do you also hereafter when converted strengthen your brethren. And he said to Him, Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death. But He said, I tell you, Peter, that the cock shall not crow to-day until you have thrice denied that You know Me.

The prophet Isaiah bids those who embrace a life of piety towards Christ to go to the proclamations of the Gospel, saying,

“You who thirst, go to the waters.”

But these waters are not the material waters of earth, but rather are divine and spiritual, poured forth for us by Christ Himself. For He is the river of peace, and the torrent of pleasure, and the fountain of life. And so we have heard Himself plainly saying, Continue reading Exegetical Sermon 144 on the Passion