Fairness and Eternal Punishment for One Mortal Sin

The Magisterium infallibly teaches that all human persons who die in a state of grace will have eternal life in Heaven, perhaps after a temporary stay in Purgatory, and that all human persons who die unrepentant from actual mortal sin (and who therefore die without the state of grace) will have eternal punishment in Hell.

1. We might ask: Is it fair that a person who is otherwise good, should be condemned to Hell for only one grave sin? What if a person commits one actual mortal sin at age 20, and then dies 70 years later at age 90? It is fair to condemn him to Hell for only one grave sin, when that sin was followed by 70 years of a good life?

2. Similarly, we could ask: Is it fair that a person who lives a holy life, and yet commits only one actual mortal sin just before death, should be condemned to Hell?

3. Finally, the opposite case should be considered: Is it fair that a person who lives a very wicked life, with innumerable unrepentant actual mortal sins, can repent in the last moment of life and go to Heaven?

The answer to each question in order:

1. The person who commits an actual mortal sin at age 20, falls out of the state of grace. While he is unrepentant, he may cooperate partially and haltingly with actual graces. But if he ever fully cooperates with actual grace, he necessarily repents by perfect contrition (even implicitly), and returns to the state of grace. If he does not repent for the next 70 years, he dies unrepentant from actual mortal sin, and is justly condemned to Hell.

Why is his condemnation just? One reason is that each actual mortal sin does deserve eternal punishment. Another reason is that he spent 70 years refusing to repent from that actual mortal sin. This refusal to repent is itself an additional grave sin, an actual mortal sin of omission. And if he continues to refuse to repent, for a long time, he commits many actual mortal sins of omission. So he dies unrepentant from many actual mortal sins, committed over a long period of time. Moreover, someone who commits an actual mortal sin and who continually refuses to repent for a long time, most probably will commit other actual mortal sins in his life. So he did not commit only one actual mortal sin, and then live a holy life, only to be sent to Hell.

If we stipulate a hypothetical situation where his life subsequent to that first actual mortal sin was holy, this necessarily implies that he repented from his grave sin, at least by implicit perfect contrition. For a person who commits actual mortal sin and continually refuses to repent cannot be said to be holy. The state of grace makes us holy. Actual mortal sin deprives us of that holiness, necessarily, until and unless we repent and return to the state of grace. If his subsequent life was truly holy, not merely apparently holy, then he must have repented.

2. In this next scenario, the person enters the state of grace at a young age, and continues in that state for almost all of his life. He lives a truly holy life and avoids all actual mortal sin — until the end of his life, when he commits one actual mortal sin. Soon after, he dies unrepentant. Does he deserve to go to Hell? First, we must assert as an article of faith that each and every actual mortal sin, by definition, deserves eternal punishment. For the sinner has chosen, with full freedom of choice and full knowledge of its grave immorality, an act that is entirely incompatible with the love of God and neighbor. Heaven is eternal love of God and neighbor. So anyone who commits an actual mortal sin and does not repent, in fact does deserve eternal punishment. Only loving persons are sent to Heaven.

However, if he has lived a truly holy life, being in the state of grace continuously, cooperating frequently with many actual graces, then when he commits an actual mortal sin, he will repent easily and quickly. His life of grace prepares him to repent readily, by cooperation with actual graces. And God certainly offers such a person ample grace for repentance before death, due to his holy life and the universal salvific will of God.

Moreover, the providence of God protects such truly holy persons from dying immediately upon committing an actual mortal sin, and the grace of God may protect that person from ever committing an actual mortal sin once death is near. Therefore, such a person can easily continue on the path to Heaven and obtain eternal life. God’s providence and grace make certain that everyone is treated fairly, and has ample opportunity for eternal life in Heaven.

But if it ever were the case that a person who lived a holy life committed only one actual mortal sin, and then soon after died unrepentant, he would in fact be sent to Hell. For we are all subject to the judgment of God and the eternal moral law equally.

3. What if a person lives a very wicked life, filled with many actual mortal sins and a continual refusal to repent, but then he repents in the last minute of life?

First of all, repentance is available to everyone, even through the last moment of life. But after that last moment, repentance from actual mortal sin is not available. We are judged at the particular and general judgments by what we knowingly chose to do in this life.

Now a Saint can repent from a lifetime of occasional venial sin in a single moment. But repentance from actual mortal sin is not always so easy. So this case is the antithesis of the second case above. In that case, the person repents easily and quickly, from his actual mortal sin, because of his life of holiness. But when a person has committed very many actual mortal sins, from which he has never repented, then he is not predisposed to repent easily and quickly. The more actual mortal sins you commit, without repentance, the more difficult it becomes to repent. And this occurs due to your own choices. It is not unfair to be treated as you deserve to be treated based on your own free will decisions.

This principle is seen clearly in the teaching of the Church on what constitutes a valid confession. The easiest path to forgiveness is by imperfect contrition and confession. Many, perhaps most, penitents have perfect contrition when they confess. But the minimum requirement is imperfect contrition and confession. Yet even in this easiest path to forgiveness, the person must make a diligent examination of conscience, and confess each and every actual mortal sin in kind and number. This examination of conscience takes time.

Suppose a person commits innumerable actual mortal sins over a long period of time, without any repentance. Next, this person cooperates with grace and does a diligent examination of conscience. The time required for such an examination is lengthy, and the confession itself will not be brief. Otherwise, the conditions for a valid confession might not be met.

Now consider the similar case, where such a wicked person has no access to confession. The higher standard of perfect contrition — sorrow for sin out of love for God and neighbor — applies. Mere imperfect contrition, which is based on an ordered love of self, is not sufficient for forgiveness without a Sacrament. Can such a person repent in a single instant, from a lifetime of unrepentant actual mortal sins? I don’t believe so. For then his path to Heaven would be easier than repentance with imperfect contrition and confession. To be truly repentant from a lifetime of wicked unrepentant sins, time is required. We are fallen sinners living in a temporal world. When we sin gravely, it takes time to consider the immorality of the act and give the sin full deliberation. And when we repent, it takes time to consider what we have done wrong, why it is wrong, and to sincerely regret our choices.

Moreover the person who sins gravely, very many times, without any repentance, is not predisposed to repent quickly and fully, nor is he predisposed to repent with perfect contrition. A lifetime of love of God and neighbor predisposes the holy person to repent with perfect contrition, readily, from even venial sin and also from actual mortal sin. But a lifetime of hating God and neighbor and of extreme wickedness predisposes the person against repentance. He has chosen to become a wicked person. He has free will, so he can possibly repent. And God still seeks repentance from that person. But time is required for such a profound change in such a thoroughly sinful person.

Some foolish commentators claim that perhaps wicked dictators like Hitler, or terrorists like bin Laden, or other exceedingly wicked persons, repented in the last moment of life, and so will eventually go to Heaven. But I say that such an act of instant repentance with perfect contrition is not possible for them. They are the persons they have chosen to be, and they have not chosen to be persons of love, forgiveness, and repentance. For such persons, repentance would be exceedingly difficult and time-consuming. And since we know what the ends of their lives were like, we know (in terms of human knowledge) that they did not repent. We know, similarly, that they are condemned to Hell.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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2 Responses to Fairness and Eternal Punishment for One Mortal Sin

  1. Joshua says:

    Mr. Conte, I have a very complex question to ask: A family member recently asked me if tortured persons who committed suicide were sent to hell. This family member gave me the example of women captured by ISIS that were brutally and ceaselessly tortured and raped who committed suicide. I told her that, while suicide is a mortal sin, a person’s intention is very important. And if someone committed suicide in such a horrifying situation, it could possibly diminish that person’s culpability. Was this the correct answer? I would appreciate your take on the matter. Thank you so much, and happy New Year.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Sort of correct, but imprecise. Suicide is intrinsically evil, so it is not justified by intention. However, culpability can be reduced, even to a great extent, by duress, danger, pain, and psychological factors. I think it is likely that those women were not guilty to the extent of an actual mortal sin, even though suicide is objectively wrong. So they went to Heaven, not Hell.

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