Can the Dead Repent?

If someone dies without repentance, is it possible for such a person to repent after death? Fr. John Whiteford answers this question through the writings of the holy fathers of the Church.


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 man 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: Intervarsity 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 the eighth 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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Edward Hara7/15/2020 5:54 pm
These are theologumen, just as the writings of St. Isaac of Syria and St. Gregory Nyssa are. They are not binding, they have not the imprimature of an ecumenical council, and they are not a divine revelation. So we have a number of the Early Fathers who have conflicting views here. Who do we believe? I think I would err to the side of mercy and love rather than hatred and revenge. For me, the whole issue really revolves around the ontological reality of God, that is, what is His character towards His Creation? Everything in Roman Catholicism points to the Roman Law Court, revenge, getting even, etc. Everything I have found in Orthodoxy points to love and restoration.
Brian5/22/2019 6:20 pm
Bart said, "This only says that repentance is not possible in death and Hades. This makes sense because then the soul is disconnected from the body, so the human is not complete. Nothing here says that it is impossible after the resurrection, though, when all will be returned to their true human nature as a complete being. But I do not know any teaching about that."

I agree. The action takes place on Judgment Day after the general resurrection of all the dead. The quotes the author mentioned are about the intermediate state. Why think that God does not love sinners after they die a natural death? The Bible does not lead me to believe this.
Ron Grimes9/25/2018 7:26 am
If there is no repentance after death, then how can the Calvinistic Confession of Cyril Lucaris be wrong? God's revelation of Himself has been limited to very narrow tracts of land, and has been so for thousands of years. Post resurrection of Christ, it would spread a bit further, primarily limited to the middle east, North Africa, and Europe. Even today, EO is scarcely known in the Western hemisphere, leaving us with primarily the heresies of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. This means billions were never given the opportunity to repent and know Christ. Can there be any conclusion other than that God chose a small group of people for Himself out of the countless billions on the Earth?
Bart4/29/2018 11:09 am
This only says that repentance is not possible in death and Hades. This makes sense because then the soul is disconnected from the body, so the human is not complete. Nothing here says that it is impossible after the resurrection, though, when all will be returned to their true human nature as a complete being. But I do not know any teaching about that.
Editor4/27/2018 7:34 pm
Rev. John: That is not an Orthodox teaching.
Rev John4/27/2018 7:01 pm
I have been told by faithful parishioners that my teaching of no repentance after death is in error. That Sister Faustina's message, from Jesus,in the Devine Mercy prayer was that everybody and anybody gets 3 chances to accept Christ after dying before they are judged? I can not find this teaching anywhere. Can you give me some direction as to where this may be found?
Rev J
Nada 1/31/2018 3:43 pm
Thank you very much, Fr. Whiteford, for your extensive and clear answer. Praised be the Lord!
BG8/25/2017 3:32 am

‘It was particularly characteristic of Staretz Silouan to pray for the dead suffering in the hell of separation from God’, writes Fr Sophrony, and he goes on to recall an exchange that he overheard between the Starets and a somewhat dour hermit:

I remember a conversation between him and a certain hermit, who declared with evident satisfaction, ‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’
Obviously upset, The Staretz said:
‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire - would you feel happy?’
‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit.
The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance:
‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all’

If St Silouan understands love with its true meaning, then my mind thinks that God cannot possibly love less than a man - even a saint.
Castrese Tipaldi2/21/2017 1:35 pm
Missing that reminder, the danger is great for the little ones, above all for those who have come lately to the Church and have all their dear ones departed outside the Grace of His Body. It’s a danger of despair or a danger of falling in comforting lies like the apocatastasis and the various eclectic delusions which abound out there.
Anthony2/21/2017 12:01 am
God often saves souls through the prayers of the living. Even prayers said at home for the departed not just at Liturgy. Elder Joseph the Hesychast attests to this.
Misha Pennington2/20/2017 9:54 pm

One does not repent after death, though one may pay a price for ones sins. Accounts are settled in the toll houses. From there one proceeds to ones repose.
Castrese Tipaldi2/20/2017 4:32 pm
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live."

A lot of holy literature is reported here, about that verse of Psalm 6; may I humbly suggest to add the edifying words of the Holy Fathers about what our Lord said too?
Perhaps the absolute sovereignty of God is left out here; perhaps what is impossible for men, it's possible for God here; perhaps the dead were not able to remind God anymore, but the Lord can remind Him to them.
The Lord commanded to be baptized to be saved, yet the first to be saved was not.
The Lord is not bound by anything, not even His Statutes.

In fact, I think that it would be an act of mercy to always end articles like this, stating (correctly) the impossibility for the dead to repent, with a reminder that their fate is anyway not sealed.
The eternity is for the age to come, until then prayers, almsgiving and good deeds made on their behalf by the living act as fruit of repentance for the dead (St. John of Riga, St. Teophane the Recluse and many others).

The dead cannot do anything without the living, just like we cannot do anything without the Lord.
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