The Four (4) Last Things
Part I: The Christian Understanding of Death



Angel of Death - by VERNET, Horace - from the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

No one is more Powerful in Bringing a Soul to Jesus, than the Blessed Virgin Mary, depicted in this Picture on the Right Hand Side under one of her many Titles, Our Lady of Sorrows. Consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, through the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is most Efficacious.

(Click Painting to Enlarge)

 

Acts of Consecration
to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
through the Immaculate Heart of Mary

 

If he has Sought God during Life,
Death will be like the Opening of a Cage,
Enabling him to use his Wings to Fly to
the Arms of the Divine Beloved.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

 

The Four (4) Last Things
Part I: The Christian Understanding of Death

by Father Paul K. Raftery, O.P.

angelbar.gif (3645 bytes)

The End of the Christian's Journey through Life is Marked-by Four (4) Great Realities, Traditionally-called the Four (4) Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Today's Culture, with its Exclusive Focus on our Temporal Existence, giving Little, if any, Consideration to the Eternal Existence to-Come, has no Interest-in these Four (4) Great Realities that Lie-ahead. Many in the Church in our Times have been Influenced-by this very Dangerous Lack of Concern. For this Reason, to Stimulate a Healthy Awareness-of and Reflection-on the Fact of Human Death, Judgment before God, and either Eternal Union with God, or Separation from Him, we offer this Four (4) Part Series.

 

Original State of Man

02eve.jpg (96739 bytes)

Eve, the Serpent, and Death -
by BALDUNG GRIEN, Hans -
from National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
 

The Christian Outlook on Death is Ultimately a Positive One. For those who are Faithful to God, Death is the Beginning-of Life with God. Without it, we would never see Him Face-to-face. Our Experience of Him would be only through the Obscure and Imperfect Vision of Faith. Death, after the Purification of Purgatory, allows us Unhindered and Perfect Vision. We are Raised-up to the Divine Level, see God Face-to-face, and Fully Share in Trinitarian Life. Our Existence becomes Eternal and partly Divine.

This being said, however, the Reality of Death has its Origins in Man's Rejection of God in Paradise, as Described in Chapter Three of Genesis. God's Original Plan for Humanity was not Death, but an Immortal Existence. This was the State in which He Created the Parents of all Mankind before their Tragic Rebellion.

When we think about Man in his Original State before the Fall, Saint Thomas says, we are considering Man in a Grace-filled Condition. His various Faculties of Intellect, Will, Memory, and Passions worked-together with such a Wonderful Harmony that "It is Clear that such a Subjection of the Body to the Soul and of the Lower Powers to Reason, was not from Nature; otherwise it would have Remained after Sin" (I, 95, 1).

Among the Truly Astounding Supernatural Gifts from God that Adam and Eve had in this Condition was a State-of-Deathlessness. In themselves, Saint Thomas says, their Bodies would have Undergone Corruption. The very Nature of Man's Material Body makes it Subject-to Decay, as is the case for all Material Beings. Materiality and eventual Physical Breakdown go-together. But God placed-within the Soul of Man a certain Supernatural Power to Preserve the Body from Corruption (I, 97, 1). So Man's Original State, Thanks-to God's Act of Keeping-at-Bay the Corruptibility of the Body, was that of Immortality. Within the Bodies of Adam and Eve there was no Internal-Threat of Death. From some Outside-Source, as in a Fatal Accident of some kind, Death could come. But apart from such an Occurrence, the Body would continue Indefinitely in a State-of Youthfulness, Health, and Vigor.

 

elves.jpg (10991 bytes) Nota Bene: The Elves depicted in Tolkien's great Catholic Epic "Lord of the Rings" possess the same Preternatural Gifts just discussed.

 

The Wages of Sin

The Reason for this, Saint Thomas Points-out, was provided by an Ancient Author who said, "God made Man Immortal, as long as he did not Sin; so that he might Achieve for himself, Life or Death" (I, 97, 1). In other words, Man's Original State was not one of Corruption and Death, nor one of Eternal Life. God put Man in an in-between State, an Earthly Existence Free-from Bodily Corruption (Decay). From this Man would then Choose the Direction of an Eternal Existence or a Corruptible One (Sin).

As we know, to our Horrible Loss, Adam Chose the Latter by Disobeying God. Saint Paul's Concise Statement about this new Human Fact of Corruptibility was: "By Sin, Death came into the World " (Romans 5:12). Death was the Consequence of Man's own Rebellion. As Saint Paul said elsewhere in Romans, "The Wages of Sin is Death" (6:23). As God Himself said to the Guilty Adam, "You are Dust, and unto Dust you shall Return" (Genesis 3.19).

Thus, what we have in Death is an Aberration from the Plan of God, Human Existence gone Awry. We are Suffering a Punishment due to Sin when Death comes; a very Different Perspective from the Pagan Culture so prevalent today. Through no Fault of our own, this Non-Believing Culture Asserts, we Suffer the Trials of Bodily Death, as do all Living Creatures in this World. There never was, from this Erroneous Pagan Point of View, the Possibility of Immortality in the First Place.

For this Reason there is an Urgent Need for the Christian to see Death in Light of its Penitential Aspect. The Sorrow of a Christian over Death must Arise-from this Knowledge of our Original State of Immortality. We Mourn over our Condition of Death with the Conviction that if things had Turned-out Differently, if Pride and Rebellion had not entered the Human Heart, if Satan had not been present to Suggest and Encourage that Rebellion, we would not be Enduring such a Painful and Turbulent Collapse of the Body. In our Understanding of Death we are not simply the Victims of a Natural Process of Decay. We are even more the Victims of our own Pride that Chose Worship-of-Self over the Worship of the True God.

 

Sharp Reminder

alert1.gif (7254 bytes) Daily, the Pain of Death is a Reminder of this Rebellion. Every Death of a Relative, of a Friend, or an Acquaintance, and above all the Approach-of our own Death, Causes a Physical and Emotional Pain that is meant by God to call-to Mind that Original Act of Pride of the First Man and Woman. It is a Sharp Reminder to Mankind of what happens when we Reject the Living God. Apart from Him - Death tells us - there is no Life. Death is God's ever-present Motivator to seek Eternal Life in Him. Consequently, although Death is a Horrible Tragedy in itself, we can Thank and Praise God for the Warning that comes to us through the Painful Corruption of our Bodies, as Saint Francis does with such Boldness and Clarity in his Canticle of Creatures:

Praised are you, my Lord, for our Sister, Bodily Death, from Whom no Living Man can Escape. Woe on those who will Die in Mortal Sin! Blessed are they who will be found in Your Most Holy Will, for the Second Death will not Harm them (quoted in CCC 1014).

 

Immutable State

The Immense Value of such a Warning will become Clearer the more we can Come-to-Grips with the Immutable (Unchangeable) State of the Soul after Death.

dives.jpg (18372 bytes)

Lazarus and Dives
(Luke 16:19-31)
 

There is a 'Fixation' of the Soul in its State of Goodness or State of Wickedness, once the Moment of Death is passed. The Parable of Our Lord, concerning Lazarus, implies this State of 'Permanence'. After the Rich Man (Dives) in the Parable Dies, and goes to the Place of Torment he deserved, because of his Sinful Neglect of the Poor Man, Lazarus, he calls-out to Abraham. He wants Abraham and Lazarus to give him some Respite from his Sufferings. But Abraham informs him that between them "A Great Chasm has been Fixed, in order that those who would Pass from here to you may not be able, and none may Cross from there to us" (Luke 16:26).

dismas.gif (39306 bytes)

Dismas in Glory -
by Michelangelo
 

Once the Soul leaves this Life it enters into a State of Being that is Eternal and Unchangeable. An early Christian Writer, by the name of Origen, who took-up a Position Contrary-to this, before the Issue was Doctrinally Clarified, held that there would be Change in the State of those who were Damned. The Attempts of Our Lord to bring the Wicked to Repentance, he thought, did not End after Death. God would Eventually Bring-about even the Conversion-of those sent to Hell. Pope Vigilius Condemned this Opinion with his Decree: "If anyone Says or Holds that the Punishment of the Demons and of Impious Men is Temporary, and that it will have an End at some Time, that is to say, there will be a Complete Restoration of the Demons or of Impious Men, let him be Anathema" (Denz. 211).

Looking for Deeper Understanding regarding this Unchangeable-State of the Soul after Death, we need to Remember that the Soul's Changing from Evil to Good and Back-again, Arises-from the Opportunities for Change it now-has, in this Temporal World. It is the Nature of our Lives at this Stage to be Forming the Will through Choices. Throughout Life, we are given Myriad Opportunities for Choosing the Good and Rejecting the Bad. In each of these Instances we have the Freedom to go either Toward God or Away-from Him, and, if at One Moment we Foolishly Choose to Stray, the Next we can Turn Once Again back-to Him. What is more, we will have this Capacity of Turning-from Evil to Good Up-until the Very Moment of Death, as the Story of the Good Thief (Dismas) so Movingly-assures us. For a Good Part of his Life he was Rejecting God, Living an Evil Life, using the Time he was Given for Vice, not Virtue. But then from his Cross Next-to Jesus, with the Few Moments Remaining in his Life, he turns-from his Evil Past through the Graces Streaming-to him from the Crucified Savior. He Acknowledges Our Lord as the Divine King that He is, and asks Him for Forgiveness. "Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom" (Luke 23:42). Our Lord Assures him that his Future will be with Him in Paradise. The Nature of Time is such that the Will has Successive Moments to Use-for either Good or Evil, for Departing-from God or Clinging once-again to Him.

 

Fixation of Will

But as that Incident of the Good Thief implies, it is the Final Moment before Death that is Eternally Definitive. The Decision at that Moment must be for God if we are to see Him; for once the Soul moves beyond Death, the Situation Changes Drastically. We enter into an Eternal State where Time as we know it Ceases. The Succession of Moments of this World gives way to the One (1) Eternally-Present Moment of the Next. The Soul has the Fruits/Fruits of what it has Chosen in this Life, whether that be Union-with God or Separation-from Him. As Father Garrigou-Lagrange explains: "Entrance into the State of Separation from the Body, Fixes Forever the Freely Determined Choice before Death, just as in Winter, Frost Fixes Moisture on the Window in Varied Figures. But the Best Image is that of Scripture: 'If a Tree Fall to the South or to the North, in what place soever it shall Fall, there it shall be'" (Life Everlasting 67).

Definitions
Death is defined as the Separation-of the Unity (1) of Body and Soul. At this Time
the Soul is Fixed (Static) in Eternity.
At Death, God stops being the God of Mercy, and becomes the God of Justice.

We should be clear that this non-Reversal of a Soul's Decision is not Arising-from God, but from the Soul. For God to Intervene in the Case of a Soul Choosing to Reject Him would Involve Taking-back the Gift of Freedom He had Imparted-to that Soul at its Creation. Moreover, since Freedom is Characteristic-of Man, to Take-away that Freedom would be to Deprive that Soul of its Humanity. God would, in effect, be Undoing one of His Human Creatures, and putting in its place some Quasi-Human Animal less-than Completely Free to Decide its own Fate. This would Ultimately be a False Act, Vacillating-from His Original Plan, Contrary-to His very Nature as God - an Act impossible-for Him to do.

 

Final Impenitence

This fact of the End of our Earthly Existence should obviously make Preparation-for Death the Most Urgent of our Daily Concerns. mexicano_stubborn_mul_a_lc.gif (37154 bytes) Foolish it is to Forget the Eternity that is coming as a Result of Choices currently-being made. Such is a Recipe for the Particular Danger known as Final Impenitence.

A Person in this Tragic Condition finds himself at the Moment of Death in a State of Serious Sin. Through Neglect or Outright Rebellion, he is Completely Lacking the Union with God he needs, brought about through the Presence in his Soul of Sanctifying Grace. What is more, although he could be Reconciled-with God through as little as an Internal-Cry of the Heart for Mercy and Forgiveness, even in the Last Moments of his Earthly Life, this Soul is so Hardened in Sin that he encounters Death without the Slightest Stirring-of Repentance. Jesus in the Gospels speaks of a "Sin against the Holy Spirit" that cannot be Forgiven. Saint Augustine identifies this Sin as a Hardness of Heart at the Moment of Death: "He who Dies in a State of Obstinacy is Guilty of the Sin against the Holy Spirit" (Enchiridion 83). In other words, faced with Final Impenitence, Godís Hands are tied. He Longs-to Save the Soul and Grant it Forgiveness, but He cannot Act as-long-as the Soul refuses to Call-out to Him.

 

Final Mercy

It is important for us to note, however, that this does not mean that God ceases His Efforts. Our Lord Repeatedly comes with His Grace, doing His Best to Bring-about Conversion.

christ_light_world_hunt.jpg (126513 bytes)

Light of the World - by William Holman Hunt
Note that there is no Latch on the Outside of the Door. God can not Enter unless we Keep Watch, Hear Him Knocking and Let Him in. Our Lord Demands a Constant State of Readiness in the Practice of the Faith.


"Keep watch, for you know not the Day nor the
Hour of your Lord's Coming!"
 

In the Last Moments of Life in this World, the Saints tell us, God continues His Attempts to Stir-up Repentance in Wayward Souls. Saint Faustina Kowalska, in her Accounts of Mystical Conversations with Our Lord, Refers-to this Final Mercy, Godís Saving Grace to a Despairing Soul just-before the Moment of Death. She describes Jesus Speaking of the Repeated Attempts He makes before Death to bring a Sinful and Impenitent Soul to Conversion. When these Attempts Fail, He makes One Final Try:

Then the Mercy of God begins to Exert itself, and, without any Cooperation from the Soul, God Grants it Final Grace. If this too is Spurned, God will leave the Soul in this Self-Chosen Disposition for Eternity. This Grace Emerges from the Merciful Heart of Jesus and gives the Soul a Special Light by means of which the Soul begins to Understand Godís Effort; but Conversion depends on its own Will. The Soul knows that this, for her, is Final Grace and, should it show even a Flicker of Good Will, the Mercy of God will Accomplish the Rest (Diary 1486).

Crucial for an Acceptance of such a Grace are the Soul's Disposition at the Moment it is Offered. If Rejections of God have become Standard for a Person through his Life, there will be a "Reflex Action", so-to-speak, of Rejection that will Automatically Assert itself when God Approaches. Likewise, a Soul that has become Accustomed-to Submission-to God, will Tend-to Respond Obediently whenever the Divine Will Manifests Itself. We are Formed by our Actions. When Deeply-Developed Habits have Taken Root in our Souls, our Behavior will Unfold in accord with those Habits, for Good or for Ill. Although Well Formed Habits do not Absolutely Determine the Will to Act in a Specific-Way, although the Soul, even under the Influence-of a Life-Time of Virtue or Vice will remain Free in any Choice that Presents itself, still the Influence-of Habits on our Decisions is nothing to Take Lightly. There is a Momentum-of-Action built-up in us through Habits. Resistance to Bad Habits takes a Greater Act-of Will in Proportion-to the Degree to which the Soul has given itself over-to Vice.

Thus, Awareness of Godís Mercy and of any Gift He may give of Final Grace, should not make us Complacent. A Person can so Train the Will, through a Life of Straying-from God, that when Final Grace is Given, there will be no Inclination to Accept it. For this Reason, Our Lord demands a Constant State of Readiness in the Practice of the Faith. Nothing less than this will do!

 

 

nextCLR.gif (8822 bytes) littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes) Page 1 - Death
littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes) Page 2 - Judgment
littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes) Page 3 - Hell
littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes) Page 4 - Heaven