November 1, 2013

Editorial

Death, judgment, heaven, hell

During November, the Church encourages us to think about the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. It begins with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, when we pray to and for those who have died, and the Mass readings at the end of the month are about the end of the world and our own end in this world.

The Christian view of death is that it is both an end and a beginning. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “In my end is my beginning.” Death isn’t the end of life, but there is a finality because we will be judged on what we did during that first phase of our life.

Doctors might argue about whether death comes when a person’s heart stops beating or when his 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.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote, “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 particular judgment, which happens immediately after death, and the general judgment at the end of the world.

In the particular judgment, our soul will be presented before God and we will be judged on the use we have made of the talents God gave us and how we have conducted our lives with the help of 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. In the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus told us that he will judge us according to how well we fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, etc. It will display God’s justice in condemning sinners and rewarding those who are saved.

After the final judgment, when our bodies are reunited with our souls, we will go either to heaven or to hell for all eternity.

Heaven is the state of being in which all are united in love with one another and with God, where those who, having attained salvation, are in glory with God and enjoy the beatific vision—knowledge of God as he is. It is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.

In heaven, St. John tells us, we shall become like God himself because “we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2). Or as St. Athanasius wrote, “God became man so that man might become God.”

The bliss of heaven will consist in what the Church calls two dimensions: the vertical dimension that is the vision and love of God, and the horizontal dimension that is the knowledge and love of all others in God. We will be reunited with our family and friends and with all the other saints.

Although everyone will experience perfect happiness in heaven, some people, because of their lives on Earth, will experience greater happiness than others will. They will have a greater capacity for happiness than others, depending upon their lives on Earth. This is why we shouldn’t try to get into heaven by doing the bare minimum here on Earth.

That brings us to hell. Yes, the Church teaches us that there really is a hell, certainly the least palatable of all the Church’s doctrines. It’s a place of eternal damnation for those who use the freedom God has given to them to reject God’s love. It’s the state of persons who die in mortal sin, in a condition of self-alienation from God.

The essence of hell is final exclusion from communion with God because of one’s own fault. The fires of hell are a metaphor for the pain of eternal separation from God, which must be the most horrifying pain of all.

And who is in hell? Only God knows the answer to that question. The Church has said infallibly, through the process of canonization, that certain people are in heaven, but it has never said that certain people are in hell.

—John F. Fink

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