Dear Father, Will God forgive sinners if they are sorry and ask for forgiveness at the very end of their lives? I read somewhere that He will and that even Judas would have been forgiven if he had asked God for mercy. Can you shed some light on this?
What a good question for this Jubilee Year of Mercy! The short answer is that God will always forgive sinners, even if it be at the very last moment of their life, provided they are sorry for their sins. But a longer explanation is needed to understand the implications of this.
We can start with what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about it. Speaking about who goes to hell the Catechism says: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’” (CCC 1033). The implication is that as long as someone in mortal does repent and accept God’s merciful love, they will be saved, no matter when this is, even at the last moment of their life.
As always, their repentance must be genuine, with a true conversion of heart, even when it comes at the very end of life. As the Catechism puts it, “Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance towards the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace” (CCC 1431).
Although the person may not experience all of this, it is clear that repentance must be a real conversion of heart, a rejection of sin, not just a passing thought or sentiment.
How would a person who has lived a life of sin repent at the last moment? It can only be by the grace of God, who moves them to repent. The Catechism explains:
“Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to him: ‘Restore us to thyself, O LORD, that we may be restored!’ God gives us the strength to begin anew” (Lam 5:21; CCC 1432).
But conversion must also involve the person’s free response to that grace: “It is in discovering the greatness of God’s love that our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending God by sin and being separated from him. The human heart is converted by looking upon him whom our sins have pierced” (CCC 1432).
Is it easy for someone who has lived far from God, in some cases in repeated grave sin and even denying belief in God, to repent at the last moment? No it is not. Their pride and hard heart may often lead them to reject God, even when it means everlasting punishment in hell. God always offers them sufficient grace to be saved, but he also respects their freedom to refuse it. This is sad, but it is a necessary consequence of human freedom.
Does God actually give a hardened sinner this grace at the very last moment of their life? We can never know for certain but it is most likely that the answer is yes. After all, he “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). He will stop at nothing to rescue sinners from eternal damnation. He is ever rich in mercy. He is the good shepherd who goes after the lost sheep and does not stop until he finds it and brings it back to the sheepfold. “So it is not the will of my Father who is heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Mt 18:12-14).
This is confirmed by various reports of souls in Purgatory appearing to people on earth and telling them that certain individuals who had seemed to die far from God were in fact saved and were now in Purgatory.
Naturally, such reports can be believed or not, but they do seem to suggest that God has saved some hardened sinners at the very last moment.
Two final thoughts on the question. First, we should pray very hard for those we know who are living far from God so that God will grant them the grace of repentance, and we should do all we can to help them humanly: talking with them, giving them good books and articles to read, inviting them to speak with a priest, etc.
Second, after someone like this has died in apparent rejection of God, we should continue praying for them, since they may have been saved at the last moment and are now atoning for their many sins in Purgatory. We should never assume that anyone has gone to hell. After all, to pray for the living and the dead is one of the spiritual works of mercy.