Turning from God

Q. My question is twofold: Is it possible to show repentance in hell? Is it possible to have a change of will in hell? That is, can one who has willfully turned away from God and wound up in hell turn back toward God?

Charlie Hauser, Bensalem, Pa.

A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin:

In the supplement to his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas devoted several pages to the fate of the damned. What he wrote is terrifying. The will, he says, consists of two parts: the “natural will,” which is God’s gift, always calling us to goodness, and the “deliberate will,” the choices of which are our responsibility. In hell, the damned are eternally aware they ought not to be there, and that they have chosen their fate.

Throughout this discussion, St. Thomas stressed that choices made while we live cannot be changed after death. Sin is a turning away from God, so the damned can no longer embrace God’s goodness and turn — or return — to him. Moreover, they experience the pain of God’s judgment and the loss of any reward they might have enjoyed.

To repent of sin “directly” means to hate sin and to shun its evil. The damned cannot express this repentance because the possibility of choice ceases when we die, and the damned died embracing the evil of sin. However, we repent of sin “indirectly” when we hate it because of something attached to it. The damned certainly regret their punishment, so they are capable of indirectly repenting their fate.