In reading a handbook on Roman Catholicism, the author claimed that one’s salvation was determined by one’s “state” at the moment of death. If he/she had repented, that person would be able to “enter heaven”. What provokes my question was stumbling across a similar statement from C.S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters. Both of these positions sound similar to the fundamentalist belief in the need for “being saved.” I know C.S. Lewis and the Romans Catholics (like the Orthodox) see salvation as a process—deification, I believe, is the Orthodox phrase.
My question is, does Orthodoxy place a great deal of emphasis on one’s final moments?
And if our being made like Christ is a lifelong process, why so much emphasis placed on one’s final hour (or 5 seconds)? And is an initial act of will even necessary? I also understand the emphasis Orthodox place on baptism, but one can be baptised and choose to leave the Body quite easily.
Orthodoxy does place importance on one’s final moments, although perhaps not in the same way that the Roman Catholics do. How do we know that in one’s final hour—or even seconds—one can reach out toward salvation? We read in the account of Our Lord’s crucifixion that He was crucified between two thieves who, according to their own admission, we being punished justifiably for their actions. The one thief—referred to in the Orthodox Church as the “Wise Thief,” said, “Remember me O Lord in thy Kingdom,” to which Our Lord replied, “This day you shall be with me in paradise.” This is beautifully related in one of the main hymns sung during Holy Week:
” O Lord, Who in one moment didst make the Wise Thief worthy of Paradise: By the wood of Thy Cross, illumine me and save me, O my Saviour.”
Clearly, from this portion of Scripture, we see that one can indeed be saved even in their last hours or even seconds. Further, it is interesting to see how the repentance of the Wise Thief is juxtaposed with the silence of the other thief, to whom Christ says nothing.
In classic Roman Catholicism there is a notion that one must be in a state of grace at the moment of death in order to enter heaven. Those who had committed a “mortal sin” and who had not had the opportunity to confess it before death could not enter heaven. Those who had committed a “venial sin” and who had not had the opportunity to confess it before death could enter heaven, but only after spending a period having the guilt of their venial sins “purged” in purgatory. Those who died in a complete state of grace could go to heaven upon death, provided that there was no temporal punish to be endured in purgatory for past sins which had been confessed and for which penance had been completed. It was a very complex process which one may or may not find in today’s Roman Catholicism. In this sense, Roman Catholicism sees the state in which one is in as being absolutely critical to salvation; the difference is in how they perceive and define “state.”
We, as Orthodox Christians, believe that death-bed repentence and/or conversions are indeed possible—the Wise Thief not only is the examplar of this, but the fact that this is found in Scripture gives it even more credence. One may say that the important thing is that one is in a state of openness to acceptance of the gift of salvation rather than in a state which has been “earned” in one way or another. Salvation is indeed, as you note in your question, a process—a process of opening ourselves more and more to God’s love and mercy and opening ourselves to the importance of repentance, or change. If this change occurs well before death, fine; if it occurs right before death, fine. The important thing is that, before one dies, one experiences the change of heart and mind which is the driving force behind, as well as the fruit of, repentance.