There are many things I love about the Roman Catholic Church. I love the mystical nature of the liturgy. I love the healing power of the Eucharist. I love the devotion to Mary, and the communion with saints both living and dead. I even like the concept of purgatory.
There are, however, some Catholic doctrines that don’t sit well with me. One of these is the idea of mortal sin.
According to Roman Catholic doctrine, a mortal sin is any sinful act so grave in nature that it will send the sinner straight to hell – unless it’s repented of before physical death.
The catechism of the Catholic Church states that “Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, eternal fire” (1035).
Thus it is the teaching of the Catholic Church that a single act of sin can send someone to hell for all eternity, regardless of what sort of life he or she had been living previously. I find this doctrine deeply disturbing. It seems far removed from the God of all-consuming love that I have come to know.
Where, we may ask, did this idea come from? In truth it follows, quite logically, from three other Catholic doctrines.
The first of these is immortality of the soul. The Catholic Church teaches that human souls are immortal by nature, and can’t be destroyed. Thus every soul continues to exist forever, whether in God’s love (heaven) or apart from it (hell).
Secondly, the church teaches that in order to be in a state of grace (and thus united to God), one must live a fairly pure life. Some sin, it’s taught, is so serious that it can cut us off from God’s grace entirely.
The third doctrine states that there is a finality to physical death. More specifically, this means that there’s no chance for repentance beyond the grave. It’s only now, in this earthly life, that we can choose whether to accept or reject God’s grace.
If all three of these are true, then it naturally follows that anyone who dies in a state of serious, unrepented sin will go to hell. But I find all three of these doctrines to be questionable, for several reasons.
To start with, are human souls naturally immortal? While Roman Catholics believe they are, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians are divided on this. Some believe that we have immortal souls which will one day be joined to immortal bodies; others believe that our souls die when our bodies die, and must be resurrected (along with our physical bodies) in the age to come.
On this point, Scripture is less than clear. Many verses in the Old Testament teach that the whole person, both body and soul, loses consciousness at death (Eccl 9:5-6, Psalm 6:5, etc).
In the New Testament, death is described as “falling asleep” (1 Cor 15:18-20, 15:51; 1 Thess 4:13-16), which some have interpreted to mean that the dead have no consciousness until the day of the resurrection; but it’s not really clear whether the whole person is “asleep,” or only the physical body.
My own experiences with life beyond death are likewise vague. While I have felt the presence of many departed saints (and even had two-way communication with some), I don’t know whether they are communicating with me in the present or from the future, nor is it clear whether these spirits have physical bodies.
As for the grace of God, and whether we can ever be separated from it, Scripture seems divided. Some verses say that our sin can separate us from God (Isaiah 59:1-2, 2 Thess 1:6-10), while others affirm a vision of cosmic oneness (Col 1:19-20), where “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).
Perhaps we’re never really separated from God, but in our ignorance feel, think, and act like we are. This is the teaching of the Eastern Orthodox churches, and I find it quite convincing.
Finally, there’s the question of repentance, and whether this is possible beyond the grave. Most Christians today, regardless of denomination, would say that it’s not possible to repent of our sins after physical death. And this has been the dominant teaching of the church throughout her history.
In almost every age, however, there have been some who have believed in the possibility of post-mortem repentance. In the early church this view was held by such notable theologians as Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Isaac of Syria. In more recent centuries, we have the witness of greats such as George Macdonald and Madeleine L’Engel.
Many Christians have argued that such a possibility is in direct contradiction to the witness of Scripture; and there are some Bible verses that do seem to limit repentance to our current earthly lives – most notably the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31).
More than a handful of Christians, however, have seen a possibility of post-mortem repentance in the first letter of Peter, which speaks of Jesus preaching to “the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey” (1 Peter 3:18-20), and proclaiming the gospel “even to the dead, so that though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does” (1 Peter 4:6).
In my own experiences with the spirits of departed saints, they still seem to have free will. Though united to God in love, they nevertheless are still free to choose how they will interact with the world. If this is true, then the reverse (that the wicked could turn to God and find salvation after physical death), seems no less unlikely!
In my estimation, then, none of the three doctrines on which the idea of “mortal sin” rests (immortality of souls, sins that separate us from God’s grace, and a rejection of post-mortem repentance) are as settled as the Catholic church wants us to believe. Scripture, church tradition, and personal experience all point to some level of ambiguity on these points.
Is it possible for human beings to reject God’s grace? Yes, I believe that it is. But I also believe that the final reconciliation of all things is a strong possibility, given the power of God’s love.
What I am unwilling to accept is the idea that a single act of sin can forever separate us from God.
This is an idea unworthy of the God I know, a God of limitless power, wisdom and mercy. If anything belongs in hell, it’s a doctrine such as this!