November 9, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: Our death and two judgments

John F. FinkDuring November, it is customary and beneficial to reflect or meditate on what are traditionally called the “Four Last Things”—death, judgment, heaven and hell. This week, I will write about death and judgment. In coming weeks, I will write about heaven and hell, and also discuss purgatory.

Perhaps it is hard to think of death as a beginning, but that is the Christian view. As the poet T. S. Eliot wrote, “In my end is my beginning.”

Nevertheless, it is also an end of the first phase of human life. And that first phase—all that we have done in our lifetime—determines all that is to come.

Death isn’t the end of life, but there is a finality because at the point of death there is nothing more that can be done. We will be judged on what we did during that first phase of our life.

Doctors and theologians sometimes argue about whether death comes when a person’s heart stops beating or when his or her brain waves stop, but theologically it’s when the soul leaves the body and no longer gives the body the functions that we call life.

The body falls away into corruption while the soul journeys across the threshold of eternal life awaiting the moment when God chooses to reconstitute the original body-soul unity for all eternity.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The Christian who unites his own death to that of Jesus views it as a step toward him and an entrance into everlasting life” (#1020).

St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote, “So death will come to fetch you? No, not death, but God himself. Death is not the horrible specter we see represented in pictures. The catechism teaches that death is the separation of the soul from the body; that is all. I am not afraid of a separation which will unite me forever with God.”

After death, the Church teaches that we will undergo two judgments. The first is known as the particular judgment, which happens immediately after death. The second is the general judgment at the end of the world.

In the particular judgment, our souls will be presented before God and we will be judged on the use we have made of the talents that God gave us, how we have conducted our lives and how, in both of these things, we have either cooperated with or rejected God’s grace.

The final or general judgment will take place after our souls are reunited to our bodies at the resurrection of the dead. This is what we say we believe when we recite the Creed and say that Jesus “will come to judge the living and the dead,” and when we say, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”

Belief in bodily resurrection is a definite part of our Christian faith. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:13-14).

But how can our decayed bodies rise again? The catechism admits that the “how” exceeds our imagination and understanding. It is accessible only by faith. †

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