ASK FATHER: Is the will really “fixed” at death or do we get another chance?

From a reader…


Is death truly definitive in terms of divine judgement? There is a priest who spoke on the Patrick Coffin show (Fr. Chris Alar) that says that after we die we are given a chance to choose God or reject him, so that someone who took their life wouldn’t be damned. Is this true? But I thought that the will was fixed at death. I know you are very busy, Father, but I would be very grateful for a response.

Hell, which is not-God and un-bliss, is something chosen by the one who is damned and that choice is irrevocable.

To understand why it is irrevocable, it helps to understand why angels cannot change their minds.   With extreme brevity, angels have no bodies and, therefore, they have no passions which can lead them into errors.  Angels don’t have appetites which pull them now here and now there, as ours do.  Angels don’t learn through senses.  They know directly.  There is no process for them.  Angels can make mistakes, but when they make errors, they stay wrong.  They can’t change their minds because they have no passions or appetites to draw them to another good.

We can change our minds now because we have bodies.  When our soul separates from our body we will no longer have the appetites and passions which can draw the will to change.  In life, the habits that form from following appetites and passions can be corrected.  Not so after death.

The precise moment of total separation of the soul and body is hard to latch onto.  I am reminded of the first part of St. John Henry Newman’s Dream of Gerontius.  The soul of the dying man, soon dead, describes the separation of soul from body.  It is deeply moving.


At death, our soul and body separate. Our soul continues to operate, as it should do, but without the influences of the body and without bodily senses.  We will be much like angels in that state.  Just as angels cannot change their minds, and are locked into their state, so too it will be with us.

We will be locked into our state at the time of the separation of our soul from our body.  We will either be locked onto God or onto not-God, onto bliss or un-bliss.  There will be no competing appetites to draw us from one to the other and no new information coming in through the senses.  Death is like the kiln that bakes the clay into its final form.  Now, we can shape the clay.  Once it goes through the kiln, we can’t reshape it.   Hence, after the resurrection of the flesh, we will remain locked in to God or to not-God.  That won’t change even when our souls get bodies again.

After the separation of the soul from the body, we don’t get another chance to change our minds.  We are locked in.

This is why it is important to stress certain things in our preaching and catechism.

First, people tend to die the way they lived.  Yes, there are deathbed conversions.  That is a grace that we cannot, must not, presume that we will receive.  We form life-long habits.  That is why it is important to PRACTICE DYING every day.  If you want to be a good piano player, you have to practice.  If you want to die well, and you ARE going to die, you should practice dying.  Dying to self, dying to the world, even to the good things of the world, is preparation for a good death.  Mortifications are good for us. They are called “mortifications” for a reason: they make us die a little, to self and the earthbound.

Next, sometimes loons gripe at the Church with the idiot accusation that we are obsessed with sex.  No, we are obsessed with keeping people out of Hell.  While it is true that carnal sins are not as serious as sins of pride and so forth, carnal mortal sins nevertheless are sufficient to damn us for eternity.  If we talk about sexual issues a lot, its because these urges are so strong and the pleasures so great that they can easily lead the soul to lock onto not-God, lock onto excluding ourselves from God.  Not so many people are intensely locked into those terrible sins of the spirit, but many are indeed locked into the pleasures of the flesh, sins now so common and pervasive that they are hardly considered any longer.  But, those sins are enough to damn us.  I repeat: they are enough.

Finally, we should take death and sin seriously to the point that we often pray, as the Litany expresses and forms in us, that God will preserve us from a sudden and unprovided death, a death without access to the last sacraments.  And here I return to my constant theme these days: we are our rites.  We are our rites.   We are our rites, when we pray the Litany with its petitions and those petitions in turn form us and shape our desires to stay close to the sacraments and use them well.

When we finally get serious about doing something about the state of the Church, that’s when we will get serious about our sacred liturgical worship of God.  That’s where we are formed and shaped and instructed about dying and the promise of Heaven.   Thanks to the love and mercy of God, we have a Church because we are going to die.  We have our sacred liturgical worship precisely because we are going to die.  This is the overarching reason for all that we do: passing through the mysterious gate of death and entering into the bliss of Heaven and into the sight of God, not through a glass, darkly, but face to face in an eternal transformation in His glory ever more and ever more to be the images He created us to be.

Let nothing endanger that.


Also, check out

The Human Soul by Abbot Anscar Vonier


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, Four Last Things, GO TO CONFESSION and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Ipse Dixit says:

    I would urge anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide, overdose or even ordinary causes to continue praying for their salvation. We can’t know the judgement of God, and our prayers will be applied for good in any event. God is outside of time and our prayers over many years can be applied to the moment of death. Padre Pio held open the prospect of conversion in that moment when a person appeared dead from a clinical or corporeal standpoint, but had not yet experienced a separation of body and soul. Padre Pio practiced sever mortifications and had much insight into the spiritual realm that is veiled to most living persons. As a source, I would recommend the book, Padre Pio, The True Story, by Ruffin. And, as Fr. Z says, let us get to the Confessional.

  2. Gaetano says:

    This was an excellent post, Father. One of your best. Good thing, too, because you cut to the heart of the most critical issue: the Last Four Things.

  3. mysticalrose says:

    This is a very helpful post. I find that in our efforts to console the grieving by emphasizing God’s mercy, we can also inadvertently encourage those who suffer with thoughts of self-harm. Maybe sometimes even those who are suffering need to remember the ultimate finality of death. There are lots of reasons to preserve one’s life: avoidance of hell is still a good one!

  4. Lurker 59 says:

    Additionally, the human person is not a ghost in a machine but rather a composite. There is nothing natural about death for the human soul was not created to exist apart from the body, but it is God’s mercy that allows this and is part of the temporal punishment for the fall. In the end, God shall restore all to their bodies, even the damned, and beatitude shall be greater and the fires of hell hotter.

    Human souls apart from their bodies are not akin to non-corporeal entities. They are not “ghosts” and not angelic beings and have no ability to interact with reality by their own power and what they experience of reality is strictly infused by God. Our memory, our recollection, our cognitions, even our ability to delineate between choices, these are biological functions. A human soul without her body can do none of these things unless infused by God. So a soul apart from the body cannot choose for or against God on its own volition. If such were to be infused so that there was an appearance of choice, this would not be choice but only appearance and the human soul would be but a puppet, choosing God not according to her own choice but according to that which God has infused or has not infused (which would be Calvinistic Double Predestination).

    Also, there is the issue that heaven is not a reward for saying that God is God. Even the devil acknowledges that God is God. Heaven is rather the continuation of living in accord with God’s own life which He has granted us a share in through His Son, Jesus Christ. When one dies, they either are, or are not, at that very moment living in accord with that life. And the way of that life is a sacramental way, so if one in the body has access to sacraments, one should partake in them.

  5. APX says:

    I would urge anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide, overdose or even ordinary causes to continue praying for their salvation. We can’t know the judgement of God, and our prayers will be applied for good in any event.

    The other thing is that we don’t know the exact moment when the soul separates from the body and death actually occurrs. Old moral theology manuals use rigor mortis as a definitive indication, but even that takes time.

    As someone who has lost a relative to suicide, I take comfort in knowing that as a Catholic at some point in his life he prayed at least one Hail Mary and thus the line, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death . I like to think Mary is faithful and would do all within her power to intercede for someone who at some point asked for it.

  6. BrionyB says:

    In the Dialogue of St Catherine of Siena, there is a description of what happens to the soul at the moment of death. It’s quite frightening to read (there is apparently a great battle for the soul at this time and strong temptations to despair), but it gives cause for hope as well. Trust in God’s infinite mercy seems to be an absolutely key thing, along with genuine contrition for our sins.

    These are both things we can and should practise every day, as Fr. Z says. A daily Rosary is a very good habit as well; we have Our Lady’s promise that this devotion will be of great help to us at the hour of death.

  7. SanSan says:

    Thank you Father. Very well put. Clear and concise. I’ve never “heard” it put this way in my 70 years–but I have known that before death we have a chance to make things “right” with the Lord–after death we do not.

    “At death, our soul and body separate. Our soul continues to operate, as it should do, but without the influences of the body and without bodily senses. We will be much like angels in that state. Just as angels cannot change their minds, and are locked into their state, so too it will be with us.”

    I pray that God will preserve me and my loved ones from a sudden and unprovided death, a death without access to the last sacraments.

  8. Father, An excellent explanation. Thank you.
    Death is final.
    Yet, as one already commented, death is the separation of soul and body and that is hard to identify. Up until that instant, there is the chance of choosing God over self. Detach from our self-interest and also fling ourselves on the mercy of God with deep repentance and trust.

    It is necessary, critical even, that everyone pray for Final Perseverance daily without fail, a gift. At the very end the risk is losing it all due to the overwhelming last-moment desperate efforts of the demons to get you – and the devil knows your weaknesses and what temptations ‘worked’ before.

    Go to confession. Work hard at self-knowledge to make good confessions. We are expert at self-deception and skipping over our glaring faults. We know ourselves the LEAST! Fight this. Read and teach yourself. There are lists of sins to review that cover the Ten Commandments, Commandments of the Church, lists of faults and the virtues that oppose them [like laziness is fought with diligence based on love of a person or objective, love is the key] – there is much help out there in very old books. One good author is Fr. Tanqueray. Schieler’s Theory and Practice of the Confessional [1905] is written for priests and gives wonderful detail. There are many books if one scours the internet including old catechisms, devotional manuals, etc. Download as PDFs or Kindle. This is all to prepare oneself for death with a clean soul. I hope I don’t put anyone into conniptions of real scrupulosity but today, I am convinced that ‘scrupulosity’ is over-emphasized. This may emanate from bad formation in seminaries and be compounded by lazy priests who don’t want to do the work of helping a sinner make that life-saving review of their life in detail. Back in the day, we were encouraged to make a General Confession yearly! Re-confessing sins gets us graces to continue fighting those sins, as well as makes reparation for sins.

    As the saints have taught us, success at death is all about assiduous preparation and knowing ourselves. Death is indeed final.

  9. Mariana2 says:

    Tina in Ashburn,

Comments are closed.