The first two days of November turn our thoughts to heaven (All Saints) and to purgatory (All Souls). Traditionally, long before Remembrance Sunday was ever instituted, the Church has called on us to pray for the faithful departed but also to consider our own eternal destiny. To do so is not an exercise in being morbid. If we define being morbid as an abnormal and unhealthy interest in disturbing and unpleasant subjects, then it is arguably more correct to describe as morbid the avoidance of considering our final destiny and showing instead an unhealthy interest in the things of this life. At any rate, the consideration of our final destiny is to show an extremely healthy interest in the ultimate meaning of our lives. Indeed, it is to ask fundamental questions about the outcome of human history, both personal and collective, in relation to Jesus Christ.
What our Catholic tradition has always called the “last things”, that is, death, judgment, heaven and hell, help us to lift our gaze from the, often narrow, confines of our daily lives and to look at them from the vantage point of their “end game.” If we want a particular outcome, then logically we must live our lives so as to attain it. If we don’t have a desired outcome, either because we don’t believe anything survives death or because we don’t care, then by definition the meaning of our lives will either die with us or be totally arbitrary.
For a Christian who truly believes, and is not merely Christian by name or according to their own invention, the end-game, the definitive outcome and the definitive meaning of life is Jesus Christ. He is the end, the Omega. And he is such because he is the Alpha, the beginning. It follows that he is also the meaning of everything between the beginning and the end, namely, of creation and of history, of space and of time. Nothing has existence without him. Therefore, nothing has meaning without him. Hence, all things come from him, exist through him, hold together in him and are destined for him.
The minute we speak of Jesus Christ, of course, we are speaking of the Creator who himself entered into his own creation. He did this to reverse the disastrous rush to destruction which Adam and Eve contrived to bring about at Satan’s instigation. The Jesus Christ of whom we speak is the one identified in the Apostles’ Creed. What strikes you as you go through the Creed is that Jesus Christ is revealed not so much by his teachings as by his deeds. The Creed does not list his principal teachings but his principal actions of salvation: conceived, born, suffered, died, rose, ascended and will return in glory. So, when we speak of our lives and of history and creation itself as finding their meaning in Jesus Christ, we are saying that his saving deeds constitute the core of redeemed creation, history and humanity. His teachings are validated in his deeds.
In other words, considering the individual, the meaning of my life and its ultimate destiny hinges on the saving work of Jesus. In fact, my Christian vocation is to reproduce the pattern of Christ’s own life and works in my own life and works, according to my vocation in life and according to my personal make-up in every dimension of my existence.
In baptism, I am conceived and come to birth in Christ’s life by sharing mystically in his death, burial and resurrection. Throughout my life, it is my call and gift to work out and to work through, like leaven in the dough, the mystery of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. I do it in worship and prayer. I do it in obedience to Christ’s will, saying no to selfishness and yes to selfless love. I do it, too, in bearing witness to him before my family, my friends, my enemies and whoever else is in my life. I do it in marriage, in religious life or in priesthood, vocations which I live not as a private self-interest, but in response to the Lord who has given me such great gifts of love in order to become myself a great gift of love to others.
But life is messy. We make mistakes, we fail, we sin, we are hurt or wounded or abused, we are ill. Somehow, the daily experience of this mortal life relates more to the Cross than to the Resurrection. Our hope for the liberation of resurrection is real, but it is the dark night of trusting and loving in the midst of the “via Crucis” which is our daily bread.
This tells us that our destiny, our desired end-game of eternal happiness and freedom from iniquity and death has to be worked out on the Cross. Though our flesh objects, though the alternatives are attractive, plausible and even convincing, the depth of the heart understands, in ways which escape the mind, that only standing beneath the Cross, if not being crucified with Christ on it, is our true wisdom and glory and sanctification. If it is true that, at the end of life, we will be judged on our love, as St. John of the Cross tells us, it is equally true that all true love is cruciform. Any love which does not fit the shape of the Cross is not love. To take St. John’s words one step further, at the end of life we will be judged on how the love of the Crucified has shaped our hearts. We are all called to carry spiritually the stigmata of Jesus.
Our death will reveal if, and to what degree, the love of Christ crucified has shaped our very being. Another way of saying that is that Jesus himself will reveal to us in our particular judgment at the moment of death whether or not, and to what extent, we have accepted his divine grace. It will be the moment of truth: truth as to who we really are, not in our own judgment, but in that of Jesus. At the very moment of death, the Catechism tells us, “each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul … in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven through a purification, or immediately, or immediate and everlasting damnation” (Catechism, n. 1022). As we face the Risen Christ with his glorious wounds, he will reflect back to us what we have made of ourselves, who we have become.
From the Cross, Jesus promised the repentant thief that “today” he would be with him in paradise. As far as we know, Jesus had not spoken to this man up to that point. It was only when he professed his faith in Jesus as King of a kingdom not of this earth and admitted his own sinfulness that Jesus spoke. This shows the power of our human freedom. The other thief heard no words from Jesus, because he chose to remain impenitent. He remained tied to his miserable selfish life of crime and wanted to go back to it, even in the face of death. It is our freedom, properly informed by the truth of Christ, which allows Jesus to conform us to himself.
Jesus’ word “today”, as spoken to the good thief, is a timely reminder to us that any and every today could also be our day to pass from this life. So, while there might be the temptation to leave the full conversion to Jesus until the day we die, that day could well be this very day. Hence, every today, the Lord Jesus wants to hear us proclaim our love for him and to express sorrow for our sins. The folly of the bad thief is that, even as death was upon him, he still thought he would live to see another day. It is a sombre thought to consider what awaited him a few hours later.
Jesus promises paradise, or heaven, to the good thief. Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live for ever with Christ. They are like God for ever, for they see him as he is, face to face (Catechism, 1023). Even before they take up their bodies again at the final resurrection, such souls are joined with all other saints and angels and enjoy the Beatific Vision. Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfilment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness (1024). People are not absorbed into God in the sense that they lose their own personal identity. On the contrary, they find their true identity and fulfilment before God. They become partners with Jesus in his heavenly glorification (1026). This mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scripture speaks of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, the Father’s house, etc.. (1027). St. Cyprian puts it this way: “How great will your glory and happiness be, to be allowed to see God, to be honoured with sharing the joy of salvation and eternal light with Christ your Lord and God … to delight in the joy of immortality in the Kingdom of heaven with the righteous and God’s friends” (1028).
Heaven is not only for those who die in perfect love for God. It is also the sure and certain destiny of those who die in God’s grace and friendship but who are still in some way imperfectly purified in spirit. They will undergo a purification whose exact nature we cannot possibly know. What is certain is that their purification has nothing in common with the punishment of those who have condemned themselves to everlasting loss. The purifying fire of purgatory leads to perfection in love, and since only love can beget love, we can safely conclude that purgatory is an intense experience of divine love which leads the soul to let go of its imperfections. This is the work of God on the soul, not unlike how it can be in certain types of deep prayer, when moved by love, a person suffers the pain of seeing their own imperfections and lets them go so as to give themselves ever more perfectly to Christ. It has always been the Church’s teaching, though, that we must remember these souls in purgatory and offer prayers in suffrage for them, especially the Mass, almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance. The Lord involves us in his work of love in purifying the dead.
The full message of the Gospel also requires us to consider what happens to those who die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love. To be clear, when we speak of someone in mortal sin we mean by definition that this person has freely and consciously chosen to do, and possibly to keep doing, something which he knows to be objectively and gravely evil: for sin to be mortal, there must be full consent, full knowledge and a gravely serious matter. This sinful choice is also by definition an egregious offense against the goodness and love of God. Moreover, hell will only be the outcome if, having committed this mortal sin, there is then a stubborn refusal to accept God’s merciful love. Jesus calls this the sin against the Holy Spirit. It will never be forgiven because it cannot be forgiven, and it cannot be forgiven, not because God does not want to forgive it, but because the person himself does not want God’s forgiveness. He ties God’s hands. He thus renders the Cross effectively meaningless. He may even not believe God capable of forgiving him. Whatever it may be, this state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called hell (1033).
We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbour or against ourselves. Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. Any form of grave lack of charity, whether done by omission or commission, breaks our covenant with God. This includes all egregious acts of injustice and all the grave sinful acts and attitudes covered by the commandments, the capital sins and the other lists and categories of serious vice contained in the Scriptures and in the Church’s teaching.
Jesus himself speaks of Gehenna and the unquenchable fire. His words, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire” should send shivers up our spine. In today’s Gospel, the image of him having shut the door on the foolish virgins and saying to them, “I tell you solemnly, I do not know you”, is equally unnerving. As I mentioned earlier, what is at stake in these teachings about the last things is the power of human freedom and the responsibility we each hold to determine our eternal destiny on the basis of how we use that freedom. We might be tempted to say that no-one would freely choose hell, but that may be because our notion of hell is too determined by artistic and folkloric depictions. For the person who truly chooses to exclude God from his life, hell would actually be to be forced to live with God. Hell is not the result of God excluding anyone, but only of a person excluding God. If the choice to say no to God were not a real option for the human person, then neither would the choice to say yes to God be real. Our freedom would mean nothing. In fact, it would mean there was no sin. No freedom, no sin. No freedom, no love either. Which makes a mockery of our being created in the image and likeness of God and of the entire history of the Fall of humanity from grace and its redemption in the blood of Christ. If we hold out as a genuine possibility that a person can freely cooperate with the grace of Christ to gain eternal life, then we must by definition hold as equally possible that a person can freely reject that grace.
The choice to exclude God may not happen in terms of an all-out war on God, but as the accumulation of apathy and indifference to Christ, the Gospel, the Church, the Sacraments and even to justice and love. To live in apathy is the same thing as to live saying no to Christ. There is no salvation and there is no condemnation simply by default. No-one can say they didn’t know. It is always by choice. Such is the drama of human freedom.
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. The chief suffering of hell is separation from God in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created (1035). Although someone chooses in the end not to be with God, his choice becomes the source of his own suffering.
“The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: ‘Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.’” (1036)
“God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a wilful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want ‘any to perish, but all to come to repentance’” (1037)
As we pray in the first Eucharistic prayer: “Father, accept this offering from your whole family. Grant us your peace in this life, save us from final damnation, and count us among those you have chosen”
The last of the last things to be considered is the Last Judgment. It will be preceded by the resurrection of all the dead, both of the just and the unjust. It will be the “hour when all who are in the tombs will hear the Son of Man’s voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (1038).
In the presence of Christ, who is Truth in person, the truth of each man’s relationship with God will be laid bare. The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life (1039). To quote one of the Councils of the Church (Lyons II (1274)): “The holy Roman Church firmly believes and confesses that on the Day of Judgment all men will appear in their own bodies before Christ’s tribunal to render an account of their own deeds”
The Last Judgment will come when Christ returns in glory. Only the Father knows the day and the hour; only he determines the moment of its coming. Then through his Son Jesus Christ he will pronounce the final word on all history. We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation and of the entire work of salvation and understand the marvellous ways by which his Providence led everything towards its final end. The Last Judgment will reveal that God’s justice triumphs over all the injustices committed by his creatures and that God’s love is stronger than death (1040).
The message of the Last Judgment calls men to conversion while God is still giving them “the acceptable time, . . . the day of salvation.” It inspires a holy fear of God and commits them to the justice of the Kingdom of God. It proclaims the “blessed hope” of the Lord’s return, when he will come “to be glorified in his saints, and to be marvelled at in all who have believed” (1041).
My brothers and sisters, this magnificent doctrine of the Church, rooted in the Word of God, challenges us to keep a perspective on things, and to avoid absorption in things of little or no importance. The life of faith, of worship, of repentance, of the daily embrace of the Cross, of generous acts of love towards God and neighbour: these will see us through to the life-giving and joyful encounter with Jesus and with all who have died in Him. Let us pray the Father to deliver us from every evil as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.