Will We be Able to Repent After Death? And if So, Will God Permit It?

I don’t know that you can answer this question, or if you have time to, but I’ve asked several people and no one seems to be able to give me an answer. I really don’t even know quite how to ask it. MacDonald’s thoughts on God’s relationship to man are so different than anything that I’ve encountered elsewhere. The idea of Him doing the utmost to draw a lost sinner to Himself is not new, but MacDonald’s portrayal of it seems almost too good to be true. In the case of Paul Faber, I see how he paints him as a very hopeful creature in that he is doing good deeds despite his unbelief in God. However, in many cases, he portrays those who are doing evil as having great opportunities to know God through alternate means, like the enjoyment of nature, the reading of great literature, etc….He does not give up hope on anyone, but even suggests that God may not be through with man even beyond the grave. I can’t give you the specific reference on that one, but I remember reading it…
Thank you again for the work that you do in bringing Christ to the masses in word pictures. I truly enjoy not only your edited MacDonald books, but also your own as well…
— SM, Clinton, Missouri, 2004

Your letter was really wonderful! There is nothing I love more than an honest, sincere, prayerful quest to know God, to know his heart, to know what kind of God he is, and to know him aright. That is obviously the quest of your heart. That is clear from the kinds of questions you are asking.

You raise many important issues, but I will begin with your statement about Paul Faber. You say, “MacDonald’s portrayal of it seems almost too good to be true.” That is such a remarkable way of putting it because MacDonald uses almost those exact same words in one of his books, with one of his characters posing just the question you have posed. So in this case, MacDonald himself has answered your very quandary. He says, “It is just so good that it must be true.”

Elsewhere MacDonald poses the question, “Shall we be able to imagine God better than he is?”

Think about that. If our imaginations can conceive of a higher Goodness, a more far-reaching Forgiveness, a more infinite Love than really exists in God’s being, then by definition the goodness, forgiveness, and love of God cannot be infinite. As God himself created our imaginations, it is impossible for them to imagine him better, more loving, more forgiving, than he is. It would be for the created thing to rise above its creator. It is such a simple argument, but the further you probe into the logic and sense of it, the more it simply has to be so. God must be better, higher, infinitely more than it is possible for us to imagine him.

In Unspoken Sermons Vol. III, in the sermon entitled Justice, MacDonald writes: “More is required of the Maker, by his own act of creation, than can be required of men. More and higher justice and righteousness is required of him by himself, the Truth—greater nobleness, more penetrating sympathy...”

MacDonald’s insight has, with disarming simplicity, plunged straight to the heart of the infinitude of Love, Forgiveness, and Goodness that must define the Godhead. God can only be defined by infinite love, infinite goodness, and infinite forgiveness. Anything less than that and he would not be the infinite Almighty God.

Consider what infinite love and infinite forgiveness must mean. Is it possible for them to ever stop, ever reach an end? Not if they are infinite. Your question of God’s doing his utmost to draw one like Paul Faber…what else would infinite Forgiveness do but its utmost… forever…infinitely? I will turn your question back around and ask you, “What less than ‘utmost’ would you imagine God doing?” At what point does God stop doing his utmost? The traditional argument is at death, as you mention. But I’m not so sure death is the enormous barrier to God’s purposes that man tends to make it. If death is the final end to God’s utmost, then what of the infinity of his love, goodness, and forgiveness? It seems that it has suddenly become something less than infinite if we imagine a point where it stops.

Infinite means limitless—without limit, without boundaries, without end…for ever and ever. Such defines—indeed, such is—God’s love and forgiveness. Your question about how far God’s “utmost” attempts to redeem will extend seems to me is swallowed up in that “Infinity.” What can the answer possibly be but: Forever!

Does God’s utmost have an end? I cannot conceive of it.

Don’t imagine that these questions about the finality or non-finality of death point automatically in the direction of universalism or that they imply that I think hell does not exist. I strongly believe that hell will carry out its necessary function in God’s eternal plan. Some of MacDonald’s descriptions of hell are vivid indeed. Yet I believe just as strongly, as did MacDonald, that the utmost of God’s Love and Forgiveness and Goodness are indeed infinite, and will never cease, and that hell and even the devil himself cannot block or thwart that Infinitude—“the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” As long as there is a sinner capable of repenting, or a sin capable of being repented of—throughout all the aeons of eternity—I believe MacDonald would say that such sinners can repent of such sins and will be given the opportunity to.

As to the potential mechanism of such repentance after death, I would not even hazard a guess. While we are yet in the flesh, repentance is intrinsically connected to that nature (introspection, emotion, self-awareness, sorrow, remorse) What might be the different characteristics of “repentance” when the fleshly nature no longer exists, who can say. It might be a very different form of repentance. It might be very similar. These are exceedingly deep theological waters. So I am merely saying that I do not believe it lies in the nature of the character of God to reject, turn away, and say no to any repentant heart…ever. How such things could or will be effected post-death, I profess myself in utter ignorance.

I am reminded of the distinction between may and can. It is blurry in English and much sharper in other languages. When I was first learning German I often mistook the two and used them incorrectly until one of my German friends responded to a question of mine about his dog. I had asked if he (the dog) could do something, I’ve forgotten what it was—ride in the car, go in the house…something. I had asked, “Can he do such-and-such?” My friend’s response was, “Er kann, aber er darf nicht,”—He can, but he may not. In other words, he is physically capable of it (walk into the house, say), but he isn’t permitted to. It isn’t allowed.

The issues this may/can distinction raises about the possibility of repentance in the afterlife are intriguing indeed. Will people be capable of repenting after death, but God won’t permit it? Or will they be incapable of it and so the question of God’s permitting it doesn’t even come up?

What if after death, even in hell, someone gained an audience with God, or prayed in the midst of hell (haven’t we all wondered if such things are possible) and said, “God, I see my sin for what it is, I repent of it.” If the repentance was genuine and real, what would be God’s response? “Too late, you are not permitted to repent now…it is not allowed,” (Du kanst, aber du darfts nicht.) Or would he say, “You only imagine yourself repentant, but now that your earthly life is past, you are no longer capable of true repentance.”

In other words, does the prohibition against post-death repentance fall under the purview of can’t or may not?

This is the age old quandary that many keep to themselves, and which MacDonald (I assume) thought of as a boy and which caused him to doubt his own salvation. In Robert Falconer, he takes it to the next level and asks a yet more probing question—the boy Robert Falconer, I believe, reflecting the boy MacDonald’s question of many years earlier—“What would happen should a devil repent?”

It is, in a sense, the ultimate query that rocked the underpinnings of the Calvinist hell-theology of MacDonald’s upbringing. Of the boy Falconer’s struggle, which I take to be at least partially autobiographical, MacDonald writes:

 “For now arose within him…the evil phantasms of a theology which would explain all God’s doings by low conceptions…of right, and law, and justice, then only taking refuge in the fact of the incapacity of the human understanding when its own inventions are impugned as undivine. In such a system, hell is invariably the deepest truth, and the love of God is not so deep as hell. Hence, as foundations must be laid in the deepest, the system is founded in hell, and the first article in the creed that Robert Falconer learned was, ‘I believe in hell.’ Practically, I mean, it was so; else how should it be that as often as a thought of religious duty arose in his mind it appeared in the form of escaping hell, of fleeing from the wrath to come?…And yet God made him. He must believe that. And he must believe, too, that God was just, awfully just, punishing with fearful pains those who did not go through a certain process of mind which it was utterly impossible they should go through without a help which he would give to some, and withhold from others, the reason of the difference not being such, to say the least of it, as to come within the reach of the persons concerned. And this God they said was love.”

Maybe death does forever eliminate both the capacity and the “permission” to repent, I don’t know. But if it doesn’t eliminate the capacity, will God permit it—will it be allowed? As I read the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, I sense a dawning glimmer of something resembling the beginning of repentance in the words of Dives, not arrogance and rebellion. He is sorry. He is thinking about others. This seems to indicate to me that can (the “capacity” to repent) will exist after death. Dives has obviously had a change of heart. How did that take place when he is presumably in hell? How did this change of heart take place within him if death renders the heart forever incapable of repentance? As I read this passage, I don’t know what else to conclude but that something must continue within the eternal consciousness in the way of the capacity to respond to one’s past sins and feel sorrow for them. His change of heart would seem to throw the ball back into God’s court—making it a question of whether repentance will be permitted, if Dives indeed does illustrate the capability of it.

Into such a discussion we should add C.S. Lewis’s imaginary postulation (The Great Divorce) that people will be capable of repenting, and allowed to…but that most simply won’t want to do so. They will prefer to remain below. Basing too much of Lewis’s own view on his book may be inappropriate, yet it does to a degree illustrate Lewis’s belief in some sort of “purgatorial” arrangement, along with his belief that many will forever “choose” to remain among the damned. I think Lewis would have said that both can and may will always be operative, but that many won’t avail themselves of either—thus making eternal torment in hell inevitable. My reading of MacDonald is also that both can and may will always be operative, but it seems he may have believed that ultimately (no matter how many aeons of purifying fire it takes), all created souls will avail themselves of the ceaseless wooing of Infinite Forgiveness. This is speculation on my part. I do not know for certain whether MacDonald believed this.

Of MacDonald (and perhaps reflecting his own “hopeful” but not altogether optimistic view as much as his interpretation of MacDonald), Lewis writes: “I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself. Hence his Christ-like union of tenderness and severity. Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined…Inexorability—but never the inexorability of anything less than love—runs through it like a refrain: ‘escape is hopeless…compulsion waits…the uttermost farthing will be extracted."…MacDonald shows God threatening…terrible things if we will not be happy…He hopes, indeed, that all men will be saved; but that is because he hopes that all will repent. He knows (none better) that even omnipotence cannot save the unconverted. He never trifles with eternal impossibilities.” If we see Lewis’s view (can, may…but many won’t) in The Great Divorce, we see what might be MacDonald’s view (can, may…and, after aeons of the black fire of outer darkness, all ultimately will) in Lilith. Again I emphasize that these are conjectures on my part about the perspectives of the two great men.

On the other side of this whole discussion are Abraham’s words, “Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.” I am not so sure, however, that our traditional theologies do much to illuminate the eternal depths of this passage. There may be more here than meets the eye. But those who want to maintain that death forever closes the door to opportunity will be well able to find sufficient basis for that view right here. And, too, there is the sheep and goats passage of Matthew 25, which makes the door sound pretty closed.

(For the sake of accuracy, I should add that the traditional translation of Matthew 25:46 is quite misleading with respect to duration and finality. Nearly all translations ignore one of the New Testament’s most significant but overlooked Greek words which may lie at the very center of this whole question. So even the sheep and goats passage isn’t quite as final and cut-and-dried as it appears on the surface when read in an inaccurate translation. Neither in my opinion are Abraham’s words to Dives. Perhaps Abraham, Lazarus, and Dives cannot bridge that chasm, as Abraham says, but there may be One who can. Indeed, are we not told that He did precisely that when he descended into the depths to bring out the captives in his train? So the fact that the three men of the parable cannot bridge the chasm between them does not necessarily mean that the chasm is unbridgeable by another more eternally powerful Rescuer and Redeemer.)

These are intriguing quandaries that your questions raise. They are important questions, too, because they illuminate the character and nature of the God we believe in. What are the implications if the God we call infinite in love would turn away a repentant sinner after death because of some legalism about death and holiness and all the rest. I consider the implications raised by the evangelical orthodoxy against God’s infinite Love and Forgiveness to be enormous. That’s why I consider this such a vital and imperative query for all Christians to embark upon at some point in their lives. No one can truly know God as he is, to the deepest depths, to the highest heights, in my opinion, without, each in some unique way, having followed Robert Falconer’s probing, questioning, praying footsteps. Eventually we all have to probe the foundation of who we really believe God is. Is he Almighty…or almighty? How big is our God—upper case or lower case…Infinite, or with a limited love that has an end?

I have given you a lot to think about! I will be interested in hearing what you have to say. God’s best to you!