The Rosary Light & Life - Vol. 57, No. 1, Jan.-Feb. 2004

Theology for the Laity

Part I: The Christian Understanding of Death

By Father Paul K. Raftery, O.P.

The end of the Christianís journey through life is marked by four great realities, traditionally called the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Todayís 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 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, judgement before God, and either eternal union with God or separation from Him, we offer this four part series.


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 manís rejection of God in paradise, as described in chapter three of Genesis. Godís 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, St. 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, St. Thomas says, their bodies would have undergone corruption. The very nature of manís 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 manís original state, thanks to Godís 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.


The reason for this, St. 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. From this man would then choose the direction of an eternal existence or a corruptible one.

As we know, to our horrible loss, Adam chose the latter by disobeying God. St. Paulís concise statement about this new human fact of corruptibility was: "By sin death came into the world" (Rom. 5:12). Death was the consequence of manís own rebellion. As St. 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" (Gen. 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.


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 Godís 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 St. Francis does with such boldness and clarity in his Canticle of Creatures:


The immense value of such a warning will become clearer the more we can come to grips with the immutable state of the soul after death. 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 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" (Lk. 16:26).

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 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" (Lk. 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.


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 eternally present moment of the next. The soul has the fruits of what it has chosen in this life, whether that be union with God or separation from Him. As Fr. 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: ĎIf a tree fall to the south or to the north, in what place soever it shall fall, there it shall beí" (Life Everlasting 67).

We should be clear that this non-reversal of a soulís 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.


This fact of the end of our earthly existence should obviously make preparation for death the most urgent of our daily concerns. 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 encountaers death without the slightest stirring of repentance. Jesus in the Gospels speaks of a "sin against the Holy Spirit" that cannot be forgiven. St. 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.


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. In the last moments of life in this world, the saints tell us, God continues His attempts to stir up repentance in wayward souls. St. 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:

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. "Keep watch, for you know not the day nor the hour of your Lordís coming!"

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