Death (Theology of)
DEATH (THEOLOGY OF)
The theology of death will be considered under three main headings: (1) the problem of death, i.e., the apparent contradictions that arise when man tries to understand the phenomenon of human death; (2) the mystery of death, i.e., the answer to this problem as it is contained in divine revelation (this will have two main aspects, death a consequence of sin and death transformed by the dying and rising of Christ); (3) theological understanding of the mystery of death, i.e., an endeavor to penetrate the meaning of the answer supplied by revelation to the problem of death.
PROBLEM OF DEATH
Man's knowledge of death on the human level comes only from external observation. No one has experienced death and then explained to other men the nature and meaning of this experience. As one observes this phenomenon of death, two apparently contradictory judgments concerning it force themselves upon the mind, and this is what constitutes the problem of death. On the one hand, death for man seems entirely natural and in keeping with what he is. On the other, death seems completely absurd, in flat contradiction to the special characteristics that distinguish man from all other creatures in the material universe.
Naturalness of Death. Death seems perfectly natural when one considers the obvious affinity man has with the material life of the universe. He possesses a complex organic structure that has been modified and perfected through many centuries of development and adaptation. This organic structure draws its support from the environment that surrounds it, an environment that everywhere manifests the cycle of birth, growth, decline, and death. It is characteristic of all plant and animal life that the individual goes through a maturing process, during which it is benefited by its surroundings and at the same time contributes some benefit to these same surroundings. When the maturing process is complete and the individual's function realized, it yields in death to other individuals of its kind to continue the process. So the human individual passes naturally through the same phases of life to find his normal and fitting end in death. In ancient Israel, it was only sudden death cutting a man off in the midst of his youth or mature years that was regarded as unfitting. The early Hebrews gave little thought to an existence beyond the grave and accepted with serenity the prospect of death at the end of a full life, of a death that meant the end of all truly meaningful existence, as far as they knew. Life was a gift of God. It was not less truly a gift of God because it had an end [see life, concept of (in the bible); death (in the bible)].
Absurdity of Death. However, this serene acceptance of death as a natural, normal part of human existence is greatly disturbed when one considers the special characteristics of human life. For every living being except man, death at the end of the completed aging process is a reasonable conclusion to a life in which all the individual's potentialities have been realized. The plant has flowered and produced fruit and seed. The bird has grown to beauty, learned to fly and sing, has produced offspring able to do these same things. Each of the lower animals comes to the normal end of its life having achieved completely, or very nearly so, everything it was capable of achieving. But death always finds man in some very real and significant sense incomplete, his potentialities unrealized, the full resources of his personality hardly tapped. The capacity of the human spirit for friendship, truth, the creation and appreciation of beauty, the enlightenment of others and the spreading of happiness, for technological development, moral advance, new and enriching experiences, and for innumerable other things—all this capacity passes from this world in death only partially fulfilled. And paradoxically, the more the human personality has been developed, the more abrupt and absurd does death seem when it makes its appearance; for this development always holds the promise of much more. If Einstein had lived longer, perhaps he would have been able to formulate the theory for expressing the fundamental unity of all material phenomena. If Beethoven had not been taken by death, the beauty of other symphonies would have come from the resources of his spirit. If Thomas Aquinas had lived longer, his contribution to man's accumulation of wisdom would have been proportionately greater.
This absurdity of death manifests itself also in the special human fear of death. This fear in man is something more than the biological instinct of bodily self-preservation. Because man is reflexively and explicitly aware of his own personal life and activity, death appears as a threat to what he is at his deepest level. Man's self-possession in knowledge and his self-giving in love all appear to be awaiting destruction in death. Death seems the supreme evil for himself as a person.
The philosophical reflections on the special nature of the human soul do little to relieve this fearful apprehension. It is true that in man the phenomena of full conscious reflection upon himself and his activity, of abstract, universal, and necessary knowledge, of free self-determination in deliberate choice, all point to the fact that the inner source of this activity is not matter nor essentially dependent upon matter for existing and acting; the human soul can be and operate even apart from the body (see immortality). But such a state of separation must appear violent and unnatural. There is nothing that man now does, no relation he has with the material world or with other persons, that does not have a fundamental bodily component. The prospect of being and acting in a way that totally relinquishes this connection with matter can well seem abhorrent, futile, and illusory.
Points of View. In the face of this problem of death there are two attitudes possible: one atheistic, the other religious. The atheist accepts the absurdity of human death as a manifestation of the total absurdity of existence. Just as human life must finally be said to have no reasonable purpose or destiny, so the entire structure of reality is without explanation or meaning. There is no need to look for a supreme principle or cause to account for what one experiences, because what one experiences is absurd, irrational, incapable of being accounted for. Indeed, from man's point of view there is no room for God. For the human spirit can live with absurdity only if it can create values where none now exist. But the existence of God would stand in the way of creating these values. The existence of God would deny the full freedom of man to establish goals and strive for them, to give himself an essence that can make the anguish of this absurd existence tolerable. Such is the position of the modern atheistic existentialist.
The religious man accepts the absurdity of death as evidence of the incompleteness of his knowledge of the whole. He recognizes that a detail or part, no matter how important and central, can well seem absurd if considered apart from the totality to which it belongs. His acknowledged inability to grapple successfully with the problem of death on his own resources prepares him to accept from divine revelation a solution to this problem that will unite meaningfully all the aspects of life and death that he observes.
MYSTERY OF DEATH
Divine revelation makes known to men that death in general and the particular death of each individual fall within the plan of God's ordering wisdom and His self-giving love. In the light of this revelation death becomes a mystery instead of a problem. That is, it no longer seems a combination of contradictions, but a reality whose full meaning touches the infinite and in this way escapes man's total comprehension. The emphasis here is not upon darkness and hiddenness, but upon light and the richness of what has been made known to man by God [see mystery (in theology)].
Viewed in this way death as a natural phenomenon not only manifests man's affinity with the material universe, it also illuminates his essential relationship to God. Before the necessity of dying all of man's pretense to self-sufficiency crumbles. He recognizes his radical difference from God and his complete dependence on Him. God alone is absolutely immortal; man is mortal. God has in freedom given life to man. In freedom likewise He takes this life away. He is the lord of man's essential being. This freedom and lordship do not imply capriciousness or tyranny, but they do emphasize the fact that man's destiny is not ultimately in his own hands but in God's.
This has special relevance for the question of the survival of man's soul after bodily death. Although the specifically human activity noted above manifests a radical capacity of the human principle of life to exist and act apart from the body, any attempt to conceive how this activity can be carried on apart from the conditions of time and space deriving from the body meet with very little success. Here man must be willing to trust his death to God even as he trusts his life to Him. This confidence in the face of darkness and obscurity is the earliest religious attitude of the Hebrews toward death.
But, in the actual historical order of things, man's reaction to death as something absurd and out of place is well founded. "Because God did not make death," as the Book of Wisdom informs man, "nor does he delight in the destruction of the living…. God formed man to beimperishable; the image of His own nature he made him. But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world"(1.13; 2.23–24). Death is a consequence of sin, of man's free acceptance of the temptation to evil. God permitted this sin and its consequence, and in His loving wisdom draws good from it.
Death a Consequence of Sin. The story of man's creation and fall in Genesis ch. 2–3 belongs to the most ancient religious traditions of Israel. The sacred writer is endeavoring to explain the universal phenomenon of sin and death in the world. God is the living and holy Lord, how can death and wickedness have place in His work? These things cannot belong to His original plan and intention. God is therefore shown as taking special care in the creation of man, breathing life into him, extending to him, in a condition of primitive innocence, a life of close union with Himself. To live is to share what belongs by right and in its fullness to the living God alone. So long as man maintains his union with the living God, he shall never lose the gift of life. But if he turns from God in disobedience, then loss of life is inevitable. The spirit of wickedness tempted man to independence of God and man yielded to this illusion and estranged himself from God. As a result, man is cut off from the living God and made subject to corruption and death.
This disorder belongs to the primordial condition of man. It affects the whole race of mankind, because it affected the very beginnings of the race. Human nature as it is passed on to mankind from the first parents of all men is deprived of that link with God which would have guaranteed incorruption and life. The necessity of dying that lies upon everyone who is born manifests historically not simply man's affinity with the material world, but his failure to cling to Him who is life. And, apart from any remedy that God might provide, the experience of bodily death itself must seal man's alienation from God.
Death is thus not simply an arbitrary punishment for sin, one of several possible ways of exacting justice. Death is intrinsically connected with separation from God. It is true that if man had not been called to the special intimacy with God that constitutes the supernatu ral order, then death, as a natural phenomenon, would not have bespoken any moral deviation from the divine will. But, in the present order of things, human immortality could not remain where sin severed the root of that immortality in man's relationship to God; nor could immortality have been lost so long as that root remained.
This also explains a deeper dimension of the human shrinking from death. By sin man never lost his ordination to a supernatural goal, though he lost the inner resources that would lead him to that goal. Hence, man always retained a basic ordination to immortality even in his body. The fear of death, then, is a reaction aroused by an instinctive awareness of an immortal destiny that may be lost to him.
Death, as experienced by the sinner unredeemed by Christ, is a punishment not only for original sin, but for his own actual sins as well. It is not just a concrete human nature that is dying, but a unique human person. If that person by his own deliberate choices has ratified the alienation from God that his nature inherited from Adam, then he lives out his freely chosen separation from God in the moment of death as his own personal experience, the fruit of his own rejection of life in God.
The punishment that death contains is twofold. It is the destruction of the body and the isolation of the soul. Man's well-being cannot be found apart from his own inner unity and harmony, nor apart from his community with the rest of the universe. Death destroys both of these in the sinner. Through the separation of body and soul and the consequent disintegration of the body, the inner unity and harmony of man is lost. Furthermore, the soul of man is naturally inserted into the universe only by its union with a body, by organizing matter as the instrument of its experience, development, and expression. With its loss of a body, its existence is in isolation from everything else, left inescapably alone in its own incompleteness and unrealized potentiality.
The death of a sinner is his final submission to the empire of Satan. Sin always bears some relationship to diabolic influence; not that every temptation is directly from the devil, but man's original infidelity and loss of internal wholeness did result from the devil's suggestion, and it is this loss that continues to manifest itself in some way in all subsequent rebellion. Each individual sin is a further extension of the devil's disorder, and the sinner's death makes this a stable and permanent condition. One would, of course, be wrong in imagining the rule of Satan as a power he has to direct persons or events to his own purposes; Satan rules only in the sense of withdrawing something from the immediate purpose God intends for it. The death of the sinner withdraws him finally from the way in which God first wished to manifest Himself in him and to him, the way of salvation. Thus, this death is the ultimate achievement of diabolic power.
Death Transformed by Christ. Sacred Scripture describes man's need of salvation in many ways. He is said to be in captivity or bondage, to be a slave, to be wandering astray, to be in debt, to be living according to the flesh (in the Pauline sense of creaturely weakness cut off from the divine strength), to be sick, to be in darkness, to be subject to futility. But all these ways and many others are summed up in saying that sinful man is mortal, dwelling in the shadow of death, is, in fact, dead in sin. Death in these expressions does not mean exclusively either the material death of the body or the spiritual death of the soul, but total death as it afflicts man's entire person. Salvation, then, must mean a transformation of man's mortal condition, a changing of death into life.
God's determination to save man did not mean that He would erase death and pretend that man's sin had never happened. God's respect for created freedom and activity never allows Him to act as if some actual event had not occurred. The fact of man's sin remains and the consequences of that fact remain also. But God can change the internal meaning of those consequences, and, provided only man is willing, thereby make those consequences work for man's ultimate well being, instead of for his ultimate destruction. This change cannot be simply a different way of looking at death from the outside, nor an arbitrary connection of death with certain beneficent effects to which it bears in itself no inner relationship. Rather, the very nature of death must be changed so that it leads to God and life, rather than away from Him to everlasting ruin.
The Death of Christ. To effect this inner transformation of death and the human condition, God sent His Son into the world "in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom8.3). The Son of God became a mortal man; sinless in Himself, He assumed a nature made subject to suffering and death by man's sin. When the selfishness, ignorance, and malice of His contemporaries forced death upon Him, He freely and willingly accepted it in a spirit of loving dedication to His Father's will. Death, whose inner nature had been filled with disobedience and rejection, was now in Christ suffused by love and submission. It became a sacrificial act, manifesting in the highest fashion His total self-giving and surrender. This adoring love, belonging as it did to a Divine Person, had within it the power to transfer Christ in His human nature into the divine sphere of immortal life and glory. The gift of Himself in death was accepted by the Father, who raised Him from the dead and filled Him with the undying life of the Holy Spirit. Death is swallowed up in victory. In Christ its meaning has been totally transformed. It no longer means simply man's rebellion against God; it is also now a sign of the presence of God's saving love in the world.
It is important to note that in His sacrificial activity Christ was not acting as a private individual but as the divinely constituted high priest of the human race. He underwent death on man's account, not in the sense of suffering the punishment man deserved to suffer and in this way satisfying the impersonal demands of a violated law, but in the sense of sharing with His fellow men the triumph He achieved through death. As the new Adam, founder of a new humanity, summing up in Himself the race of mankind, one with man in flesh and blood, He was for man's sake obedient unto death. Therefore He was exalted by the Father and brought to a position of consummated perfection at the Father's right hand. Thus perfected, Christ is the source of man's salvation, the principle of the life-giving Spirit who leads men as the children of God through suffering and death to an eternal inheritance with Christ Our Lord. This means that the total situation of fallen man has been changed. He no longer dwells simply in the shadow of death, but the light of life shines upon him. For within the human race, in one of its members who has triumphed over death and sin, there exists the efficacious and imperishable source of eternal life.
The Death of a Christian. The death of one who is in Christ, the death of a Christian, is thus immeasurably different from the death of a sinner, who dies in Adam. It is true that death as he approaches it still appears dark and forbidding, for it is still a consequence of sin. Only now, death may not be considered a punishment for sin, for there is nothing in the Christian who is alive in Christ that falls under the condemning judgment of God (cf. Rom 8.1). Since death is radically natural to man, God may leave it as part of human existence without thereby implying any rejection or lack of forgiving love, in spite of the fact that its presence historically manifests the fact of man's fall, for death now manifests also God's redemptive purpose, and it becomes for the Christian, as it was for Christ, an object of humble acceptance. It becomes the occasion for the exercise of the divine life with an intensity and purity it would not otherwise achieve.
The transformation of death in the case of the individual Christian is not just an automatic consequence of the dying and rising of Christ. It is the culminating result of the whole supernatural and sacramental life of the Christian whereby during life he opened himself to the divine power that was at work throughout all of Christ's life, death, and Resurrection, and continues to operate in His glorious humanity. This can be seen specifically in the development of the theological virtues, faith, hope, and charity, which constitute the essential activity of the supernatural life, and in the effect of all the Sacraments, with the possible exception of Holy Orders and Matrimony, which as Sacraments of vocation are more directly related to the manner of Christian living in this world.
Death: Fulfillment of the Life of Grace. Faith is the basic activity of the supernatural life, the life of grace. Here man opens himself to the saving revelation which God has made in and through His Son, Jesus Christ. By faith man responds to this revelation by an act of total acceptance and total dedication, accepting from God the ultimate meaning of his life in a destiny that exceeds his understanding and his own internal powers of achievement, and dedicating himself to walk toward the realization of that destiny. By faith, then, man orients himself toward a goal that lies beyond the visible confines of this mortal life. Faith thus necessarily bespeaks an attitude toward bodily death. For the believer, approaching death is the veil that conceals the goal to which he has committed himself. Death is not defeat, nor destruction, nor final estrangement from God. The experience of death, precisely because it takes place in one whose mind is turned in faith toward the eternal truth of God manifested as savior, means the unveiling of the face of God. Faith is transformed into vision. It is true that lesser unforgiven sins or an unpaid debt of punishment for forgiven sins can delay the full effect of this final transformation until purification is achieved; but in death it is radically and essentially accomplished. If the soul in purgatory does not yet see face to face, neither does it still behold as in a glass darkly. The radiance of the divine splendor has already begun to shine upon it unmistakably, and the promise of clarity to come is experientially realized, not taken upon external testimony (see purgatory). The same thing holds proportionately for what is to be said about hope and charity and the Sacraments.
Hope is the developing activity of the supernatural life. Here man meets the challenge of difficulty and his own internal weakness with an ever greater reliance on the divine goodness, power, and wisdom. This reliance in trial draws him continuously closer to God and causes the divine life to flourish with greater intensity and purity. But all the hardships that man must endure and all the inner weakness that he experiences in life are concentrated in the event of bodily death. Without hope man can undergo death only in despair; there is no middle ground. For the one whose entire trust and power is in God, death changes the assured confidence of hope into the joy of possession.
Love, finally, is the perfect, mature activity of the supernatural life. Here man responds to the loving initiative of God with an act of complete self-giving and affective identification. He no longer lives to himself but to God, and to Him who for his sake died and rose again. The process of the dispossession of self whereby a man endeavors to love God with his whole heart and mind and strength and will reaches its perfect realization in the unselfing event of bodily death. For one who loves, this moment of dissolution is the moment of final consummation, in which with Christ he delivers his spirit into the hands of God his Father.
Death: Completion of the Sacraments. It is through the Sacraments that man most thoroughly enters into the transforming power of Christ's Passion, death, and Resurrection. In each case (except for Orders and Matrimony, as was indicated) what is begun in the reception of the Sacrament is perfected in the experience of Christian death. Baptism is supernatural rebirth; it is a passing from death to life by being buried and raised with Christ [see rebirth (in the bible)]. The paschal mystery that was accomplished in Christ is applied to the offspring of Adam infected by original sin; it transports him from darkness into the kingdom of God's beloved Son. The Holy Spirit is given as the pledge, the actual beginning of the eternal life to come. This is the start of the journey whose end is reached through the experience of death. Man's incorporation into Christ's death through Baptism is a preparation for his own death wherein that incorporation is made perfect and enduring.
Confirmation is the Sacrament of Christian maturity. The Spirit of Christ is given not simply as to a child but as to a developed member of the mystical body of christ. Through this Gift of the risen Lord the Christian is empowered to bear witness in word and deed to the present reality of the kingdom of Christ in the world. But nowhere is this witness more fully given than in death. For this reason those who undergo death for their loyalty to Christ are called martyrs, "witnesses" par excellence. But the same witness that the martyrs give so strikingly in suffering the loss of all things for Christ is given more prosaically but no less truly in the day-to-day living of the Christian life, and especially, in the confident acceptance of death at the end of life. In the end, every Christian who dies in Christ gives his life for the faith; and the mission he was entrusted with at Confirmation is thereby perfectly fulfilled.
The celebration of the Eucharist in the Mass is the reality of Christ's sacrificial act of dying and rising made present and operative in the midst of men enabling them day by day to join the motion of their lives with His. The reception of the Eucharist in Holy Communion is a sharing in the life of the glorified Victim, making men to dwell in Him and Him in them and directing their mortal natures to the future triumph of the Resurrection. Through the Eucharist, then, men both continually renew the dedication of their lives to God in union with Christ and are nourished by His glorified humanity for the daily living out of this dedication. In their actual experience of death this dedication is at length perfectly achieved. For this reason, the Holy Eucharist more than any other Sacrament has in the tradition of the Church been the Sacrament of the dying. Viaticum traditionally has been the food for the journey through death to eternal life in a spirit of obedience and adoring love.
Although popular piety since the Middle Ages has considered the Anointing of the Sick the special Sacrament for the dying, in the longer perspective of Christian tradition its scope is broader than this, though it comes to a focus of special meaning in the hour of death. Sickness is evidence of Satan's dominion over mankind as a result of the Fall. The NT reflects this point of view, especially in the narration of Christ's miracles of healing. Hence it happens that sickness, especially serious sickness, can be a time of great spiritual trial, when the forces of wickedness act upon men in their weakened condition to cause them to grow slack in their exercise of love, to become self-centered and demanding, to become anxious and lose confidence in the abiding love of God for them. In this time of special need, Christ comes to them in the Anointing of the Sick to raise up their hearts and to strengthen them. It is clear, then, that their last sickness is a time of particular trial. The Fathers of the Church and the Council of Trent teach that the hour of death is the time of man's last great struggle with the devil. If a Christian has led a life of faithful devotion to God, Satan endeavors to withdraw him from his complete dedication to God as savior. If he has led a remiss and sinful life, the devil tries to confirm him in his estrangement from God by tempting him to despair or to harden his heart in pride. In this hour Christ comes to him to arm him for this conflict and to encourage him through the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Death thereby becomes the moment of final, triumphant rejection of all of Satan's power over men.
Penance, the Sacrament of the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism, was given to the Church by Christ on the day of His Resurrection from the dead. Through it Christians regain the life they have lost through personal grave sin committed after their rebirth in Christ. It is the special function of the Sacrament of Penance to render efficacious before God both the Christian's sorrow for these sins, and the works he does in union with Christ to make up for them. This Sacrament, as its effects are prolonged in the Christian's daily life, not only protects him from future sins but transforms the sufferings and works of life into a power of renewal that effectively compensates for the disorder and offense of personal sin. This makes death itself in a special way a work of satisfaction and penance for past sins. Indeed, death perfectly accepted in union with Christ can mean the perfect appropriation of His dying in oneself through the Sacrament of Penance. This will complete the purification from sin and render purgatory unnecessary. All self-love and disordered attachments will disappear, and God's redemptive love will produce its full effect in the immediate gift of the splendor of the beatific vision. This perfect acceptance of death in a spirit of repentance is not primarily men's work, but God's work in men, produced through the Sacrament of Penance received either actually or in the sincere desire to submit themselves to His economy of forgiveness and purification.
Finally, although it does not seem that the Sacraments of vocation, Matrimony and Orders, produce an effect which is directly consummated in death, still the commitment to God for a life of service in His Church which these Sacraments consecrate is brought to a close by Christian death and is succeeded by a still more universal concern for the whole communion of saints.
Death: The Coming of God's Kingdom. Just as the death of a sinner is an extension of the empire of Satan, so the death of a Christian is a step toward the universal coming of the kingdom of god. By this death in union with Christ an area of creation is forever rescued from the power of evil and prepared for insertion into the eschatological kingdom of God's love. For the individual himself eternal life is definitively begun. The incorporation into Christ's death and Resurrection during the preceding period was only inchoative. The Spirit was received and possessed as the first fruits, the pledge of eternal life. All this, from man's point of view, was fragile and provisional. Now death has rendered this incorporation definitive; the Holy Spirit is possessed beyond all possibility of loss. Furthermore, the event looks beyond the individual himself to the final, total, unfailing realization of God's wisdom, power, and love in the city of the blessed, the eternal kingdom of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. One by one the living stones of the heavenly Jerusalem are being made ready until the end comes and the Son delivers the kingdom to God the Father.
For this reason, too, the separation effected by death is not so total and absolute as it would otherwise be. It is true that death, even in the case of a Christian, breaks all accustomed relationships with other persons. But this is not that terrible isolation implied in death as a punishment for sin. Since death in Christ deepens and confirms the supernatural life, it likewise deepens and confirms the relationships the Christian has with all others who are in Christ. Christian death is the beginning of ultimate union with Christ, of intimate presence to Christ, in whom all are made one. This means a union of mutual knowledge and love with all those who have already died in Christ. It means a new relationship in love to all those whose lives are still being tried, whose moment of final commitment in death is still to be realized.
Christian death, finally, is already linked to the resurrection of the body. For the disintegration of bodily union in love and obedience has already opened the soul to the fullness of the Spirit of Christ. It is this indwelling Spirit, now fully energizing the soul, who will extend His power even to the body in the resurrection. The soul transformed by glory is already the apt instrument of Christ's power for raising the body from the dead. It awaits only the word of command, the word that God's work has been achieved, the end is reached, the kingdom of heaven has come.
The phenomenon of death is thus the visible manifestation of one side of the paschal mystery of Christ being reproduced in the life of the Christian. The other side, to which it is intrinsically linked, is the bodily resur rection of the dead, the transformation accomplished by Christ conforming men's lowly bodies to His glorious body by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself in sending the life-giving Spirit.
THEOLOGICAL UNDERSTANDING OF THE MYSTERY OF DEATH
From the above description of death as a consequence of sin and as an event of salvation through the dying and rising of Christ, two things become abundantly clear. First, death is the decisive moment in every man's life; it ends the period of probation or trial, during which a man may freely avert himself from God as his last end or turn himself toward Him. After death a man's condition is eternally fixed either for joy or for misery, depending on whether he died in Christ or in Adam. Second, the natural essence of death must be such that it is open either to a meaning of loss or a meaning of salvation. In itself bodily death cannot naturally and essentially be either of these, otherwise it could not be one thing for some men and another thing for others. The question for theological understanding is therefore: why is death the decisive event in human existence? What is death in itself that it can be either the seal of one's doom in separation from God, or the definitive beginning of eternal life in union with Him?
Question of God's Will. Some theologians have been of the opinion that death is decisive simply and solely because God wills it to be. It is clear that if man is finally to be in an eternal and unchangeable state, some moment in his existence must designate the end of the time of trial and the beginning of the state of eternal reward or punishment. The period of trial cannot be indefinitely prolonged, otherwise the final state would never be achieved. In itself, no moment of human existence is naturally and necessarily this decisive moment, they affirm. It could be some moment during one's adult life, or the moment of death, or some moment after death. That it is the moment of death, as revelation clearly shows, is due merely to the fact that God decided it should be. From this moment onward God no longer wills to give to sinners the grace to be converted to Him, though He could if He wanted to. From this moment onward, He no longer allows the just to be tempted and He sustains their otherwise weak and fallible wills in unfailing love toward Himself, though, again, if He chose to, He could permit them to sin and turn away from Him. This decision of God is rescued from pure arbitrariness on the grounds that death is at least an appropriate time for ending the period of trial. Man's mode of existence changes so radically at death that it is fitting to make death the dividing point between endeavor and achievement, between labor and reward, between crime and punishment. Still, they say, it could have been otherwise.
First Critique. It is not possible to say that this explanation is certainly erroneous, though there are very good reasons for rejecting it. First of all, any explanation that finally and ultimately rests on a free decision of God alone is suspect, unless some reason is given why this must be the case. Creation, for example, and supernatural elevation have their ultimate explanations in purely free and gratuitous divine decrees defining that this shall be so and not otherwise, though God in His wisdom could have decreed the opposite. The appropriateness and fittingness of these decrees can be shown, but the final explanation is God's free determination to act in this way. In these cases, too, it can be shown why this must be the final explanation; for otherwise God becomes dependent on His creation for His own completeness and essential life. But, where no such reason as this is in evidence, one must seek some intrinsic reason guiding the divine will in wisdom and justice. One could not, for example, say that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked merely because He chooses to do things that way, that He might possibly or conceivably have chosen to punish the good and reward the wicked. The ultimate explanation of God's acting as He does in this matter is not His freedom, but His wisdom and His justice. His wisdom establishes an intelligible order in things, an order fundamentally rooted in the natures of the things that make up the universe, and His justice acts to conserve that order. Speculative theology seeks, wherever possible, to discover this intelligible order of divine wisdom and not to rest content in arbitrary decrees without clearly sufficient reason for doing so. Hence, a theological explanation that says in effect, God wants it that way and that's all there is to it, can often be simply a refuge from the exacting work of thinking. In the present instance, there is no reason that explains why the divine freedom must alone be the final answer to why death is the decisive moment in human existence. Hence, one must endeavor to find such a reason in death itself.
Second Critique. Furthermore, not only is this appeal to divine freedom suspect, there is also good reason for considering it erroneous. The economy of Redemption is revealed to men in Scripture as rooted in love, in the love that God is. Of Christ Our Lord it is said that He did not break the bruised reed nor quench the smoking wick. It is strangely inconsistent with this revelation of divine mercy to affirm that God refuses the grace of forgiveness and repentance to persons who are still intrinsically capable of accepting it. Hence it is quite unsatisfactory to say that sinners who have died are confirmed in their sinfulness only because God is no longer willing to have mercy on them. Death itself must somehow confirm sinners in their aversion from God in such wise that God's mercy no longer reaches them not because He is unwilling to give them grace, but because He is unable to, on account of the intrinsic situation itself. What this intrinsic situation is remains to be investigated. Furthermore, even in the case of the good, it is strange that God would restrict their period of growth in merit to these short years of mortal life, if really nothing objectively stands in the way of lengthening that period beyond the grave. Why should the degree of union with God be irrevocably determined at death, if the objective possibility exists of achieving a still greater degree of union through meritorious activity beyond the grave? This difficulty can be urged with still more force in the case of both sinners and just when it is recalled that death would inevitably give them a deeper insight into a true standard of values and in this way would render more likely a fuller realization of God's basic intention to communicate His goodness and life to rational creatures. Hence, it must be the nature of death itself, and not merely an extrinsic free decision of God, that makes this moment irrevocably decisive for the eternal destiny of each man. This is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas and, after him, the majority of theologians writing on this subject.
Condition of Spiritual Human Activity. To discover why death by its nature is the finally critical event in human existence, one must analyze the condition of spiritual human activity in the present state of the union of body and soul and then see what follows from a separation of that union. The human spiritual activity of which there is question is free, deliberate activity.
Body and Soul United. In man's condition of mortal life all his vegetative, sensitive, and intellectual processes are integrated into a life of choice, whereby he selects goals and directs himself toward them. So long as man makes his choice as a spirit-matter composite, his most solemn and total dedication to a goal lacks perfect interior stability. No matter how thoroughly good he is, his moral character is not absolutely incorruptible; and no matter how evil he may become, he is not utterly irredeemable. Thus, even in his commitment to what he deems his highest good, his choice remains intrinsically reformable. This reformability comes from the conditions that matter introduces into man's life of choice. His intellectual and volitional life is directly dependent in its functioning upon his sense life, which is in continual contact with ever-changing material reality. This contact makes man's imagination shift frequently from one thing to another. This shift in imagination introduces a shift in intellectual attention, and this in turn makes possible a shift in the intention of the will, in man's dedication to a goal. This shift in the will need not take place, but it is always possible so long as man's dedication depends on a kind of knowledge which is continually changing its point of view and is hence able to consider various choices and ways of acting in other terms than their relationship to the goal a man has already dedicated himself to. Hence, so long as man's spirit is directly subject to the conditions of time and space in its activity, he may always revise his judgment about what is supremely important and his determination about the goal of his life.
State of Separation. But once separated from matter, the human spirit is no longer subject to the mutability that material conditions introduce into its activity. The goal that it has freely determined on as its last end remains unchangeably the first principle of all subsequent choice and activity. This goal has become for the soul the supreme good to which it has dedicated itself with the full force of its personality, with full intellectual clarity and total attention. The commitment to the end is now from within irreformable. This end is now willed entirely for its own sake alone, and whatever else may be later willed, must be willed for the sake of this end in some way. This choice could be changed only if it were possible to change the past, to make that which has been done not to have happened. The soul has now determined forever, from within, its essential and fundamental orientation in activity.
Moment of Transition. But there remains to be examined the actual moment of transition from the one way of acting to the other, the moment of death. It is at this moment of separation from the body that the soul ceases to act in a fundamentally changeable way and begins to act with an intrinsically unchangeable intention of some concrete last end. If the man has died in Christ, this intention is forever directed toward God in love and submission and joy. If the man has died rejecting Christ, this intention is forever directed toward oneself in hatred of God and rebellion and unending misery. How is this intention finally arrived at? How does man at the moment of death finally fix his immutable direction toward the end?
Free Option. Theologians are not in perfect agreement about the answer to this question. Some will give to this act made in the instant of separation of soul from body all the qualities of a perfectly free act. Man, after shaping himself partially by a myriad of choices that could never completely commit him to a definite goal, now, bearing all the history of those choices, definitively, irrevocably, freely opts either to ratify the life that he has led or to reject it. It is the supreme human act, supremely free, choosing finally between God and created goodness, closing the time of probation and trial and joining it to its everlasting consequence. It must be insisted that this act, though free, does not take place without any relation to and dependence on the life that preceded it. It is theoretically possible, according to these theologians, that a person could live a thoroughly sinful and selfish life and then in this last moment submit to God's saving grace; but, they add, it is extremely unlikely. It is as if a man had to walk a tightrope over a bottomless abyss to safety on the other side. If he has never before seriously concerned himself about how to walk a tightrope (when there was always a net there to catch him), there is not much hope that this final effort will succeed. Habits formed during the course of life lose nothing of their power to influence choice in this moment of final decision. A person whose whole life has been one of self-gratification would almost certainly at this moment be more concerned about himself than anything else, and would be willing to think of God only as a means to his own happiness, not as the end to be worshipped in adoring love. He would simply choose freely to pass eternity as he had freely chosen to pass time.
Critique of Free Option. Various arguments are advanced in support of this theory of a free option at the moment of death. No mortal sin committed during life seems sufficiently malicious to justify the eternal punishment of hell; but an act against God placed with a completely clear understanding of the issues involved would concentrate in itself all the evil necessarily presupposed in the just infliction of so terrifying a penalty. This act of fully deliberate rejection of God would of itself extinguish the habits of supernatural faith and hope in those sinners who die possessing them, though lacking charity; for it seems unfitting that God should Himself be somehow the direct cause of their cessation, and yet they must cease when the soul is forever cut off from God in hell. Such an option could explain how God's saving grace can touch and rescue infants who die without Baptism; they are enabled at this moment to choose God as their last end and achieve thereby eternal happiness with Him. Finally, it would appear strange, they say, that the act upon which everything in human existence depends should not be in the fullest sense of the term a human act, that is, a free, deliberate act.
These arguments, while suasive, are far from conclusive, and they lack any real support in Scripture and tradition. Scripture everywhere seems to suppose that a man is finally judged and his eternal lot is determined by the deeds and choices accomplished during his mortal life, while the soul is still united to the body and functioning in dependence on it. Nowhere is provision made for a determining choice made by the soul in the instant of being separated from the body and without dependence on it. St. Paul, for example, writes: "We must all appear before the tribunal of Christ in order to receive good or evil, according to what each has done in the body" (2 Cor 5.10). The Fathers manifestly suppose that the time of probation and the state of union are identified. This is especially clear in their exhortations to penance, where they warn Christians that there is no opportunity for repentance once they have left this world (cf. Pseudo-Clement, Cor. 8.2–3). Furthermore, it is a matter of defined Catholic faith that all infants who die after Baptism are saved. Yet, if they freely choose their final destiny at the instant of death there seems no explanation why some of them do not choose to reject God, just as some of the angels did in their trial. Furthermore, the visible Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, is presented in revelation as the ark of salvation, the one means of attaining eternal life. It would seem then that man's definitive activity for reaching everlasting union with Christ should take place while he is still a member of the visible Church (see visibility of the church). Finally, when it is recalled how much the literature of the early Gnostics abounds in tales of trials and temptations to be overcome when the soul was no longer in union with the body, it is remarkable, indeed unintelligible, that the whole of Christian revelation has maintained a deep silence about just such a trial upon which everything supposedly depends. For these reasons, many theologians do not accept the theory of a free option at the instant of death and explain somewhat differently this activity of the soul that inaugurates man's unchangeable state at the moment of death.
Summation of Many Free Acts. For these theologians, then, the act of the soul in the moment of death, in which the liberty of man is thereafter forever fixed upon a particular last end, is not free in the sense that it could be otherwise, given the concrete history of the individual who is placing the act. It is free in the sense of being wholly spontaneous, not constrained or determined by anything outside the soul, but springing totally from what the soul has become during life and expressing perfectly the character that has been formed by the many free choices that have preceded it. This act is free in the sense that it totally sums up all the free acts that have been placed during one's mortal life. It embodies especially the radical orientation of the will that was last freely adopted by the person in an act occurring before the moment of death, a free act that falls in a special way under the loving and wise providence of God. The appeal of grace in this moment may be extraordinarily strong, but the free act made before death is qualitatively the same as any free orientation made in the course of life. Thus the actual moment of death for each one is a matter of special concern for God's care of men. This does not mean that death always occurs in circumstances positively willed by God—some die at a particular time because of the malice or negligence of others, which God does not positively will. But it does mean that God's grace is certainly there to make death a salvific event, unless a person by his previous choices has so hardened his heart as to place himself beyond the reach of the divine mercy as God in His wisdom extends this to all men. The act of the will, then, that emerges in the precise moment of death as the first instant of the soul's permanent state is the necessary fruit of all man's free responses to divine grace, especially to that last grace intended by God to bring him finally to Himself.
These theologians reply to the arguments for a free option in the moment of death by saying first that what individual free choices made during life lack in total, full responsibility is made up for by the very number and interconnection of these choices. Man, unlike the angel, does not decide his destiny in a single instant of total comprehension and commitment, but as a being of space and time whose life of free decision only cumulatively mounts toward the permanent dimensions of a definite personality. The act, then, that emerges as the intrinsically necessary consequence of this process reasonably explains the sinner's just exclusion from God's presence, and also the extinction of the habits of faith and hope. For every unrepented sin tends naturally to erode faith and hope; here that tendency is finally effective. The lot of infants dying without Baptism is, they say, far too obscure a point to be used to clarify something else. And finally, they insist, this last free act, as described by the proponents of a final option at death, is not a human act at all but an angelic act, reflecting a hidden Platonic persuasion of mind.
Points of Similarity. Although there is a real difference of opinion between these groups of theologians on the nature of the act of the soul in the moment of death, it would be a mistake to exaggerate this difference. Both agree that this act depends profoundly and inescapably upon the prior choices made while the soul is in the state of union with the body. If one position says that these prior choices do not wholly and necessarily determine this act from within, this is not said to encourage sinners to put off their repentance and plan to fix things up at that last instant of freedom, but to make a man unequivocally assume full responsibility for the answer he makes to God's grace. Both agree, too, that in this act man becomes definitively himself, and that in this moment his preparation is joined intrinsically to divine fulfillment or to the awful emptiness of sin that remains forever. Both agree, finally, that the state that follows death does not derive its essential immutability from an extrinsic, free decree of God, but from the very nature of death and the activity elicited by the soul in this moment. Death and eternity hang upon mortal life and time.
Anticipation. But it is also true that because mortal life and its choices are all directed toward the fulfillment of death, life hangs upon death. The soul's activity in the moment of death is already present by anticipation and intrinsic purpose in all the deliberate free activity of life. It is this which gives to all human events an aspect of irrevocability. These events are not caught up in a cycle that is endlessly repeating itself, where things if they are done one way this time may be done another way next time; for in the profoundest sense of the term, there never is a next time. Whatever is done is done once and for all because it bears upon a single, definite climactic event in the future. The influence of a particular free choice, is not, of course, isolated and determinative all by itself; but it is irrevocably inserted into a person's life to emerge as finally accepted or rejected at the moment of death by reason of the attitudes subsequently assumed toward it in the movement toward death.
This anticipated presence of the activity of the moment of death in all free choices during life gives also the fully human experiences of life a quality of anticipated realization as well. It means that all the sufferings and trials of life form part of that redemptive unselfing that death perfects. It means that all the unselfish joys of life, whereby the happiness of others is one's own and the victories of God's mercy through Christ are also one's own victories—that these joys are the beginnings of the full glory that will be revealed in men. One sees that this was true in the case of Christ Himself, that all His willing acceptance of privation and anguish was an anticipation of His acceptance of death, and that Thabor and other manifestations of the coming of the kingdom of God were anticipated experiences of the triumph of His Resurrection.
Essential Consummation. This article may conclude by noting briefly how the essentially consummating quality of the experience of death also helps explain the special aspects of the mystery of death considered earlier. Although death as a natural event is not determinately an event of condemnation or of salvation, its first appearance in human history was the manifestation of God's adverse judgment on sinful man. This outward loss of bodily life symbolized and secured in the case of the rebellious sinner his irreversible separation from God. For in the activity of the moment of death the sinner fully expressed the movement of his life away from God and discovered only the terrible isolation of his own being in the choice that set him at odds with the universe. Hell thereafter is essentially the continuation of this moment throughout eternity.
It becomes clear, too, how the transformation of human existence can only be accomplished by the transformation of death; for all of human life tends toward death, and the activity of death is anticipated in all the choices of life. This means then that if Christ is to redeem mankind by being the intrinsic source within the human race of the transforming glory of God, He will fully become this by undergoing Himself the experience of death. In a sense, of course, Christ was from the beginning already essentially perfect even in His human nature; He was already as man in possession of the vision of God beyond all possibility of loss. But the condition of His human nature as He assumed it was not perfectly consummated; it was subject to suffering, rejection, loneliness, and the darkness of death. It was not yet the glorified source of the giving of the Spirit. It became this by the consummating experience of death, wherein all the love and obedience of His mortal life concentrated themselves in the perfect act of self-giving to the Father and achieved the total transferal of His human nature into the realm of the divine glory, a transferal completed in the Resurrection.
So, too, for the Christian as he gradually becomes more and more assimilated to Christ—as the paschal mystery of the Lord becomes more and more fully expressed in his life—death, because it fully captures the completeness of his response to God, becomes the moment of his final appropriation of Christ's life and death and a straining toward the resurrection of the body. Faith, hope, and love, and all the worship of the sacramental life of the Church reach full maturity in this moment of complete submission with Christ. This activity, which places the Christian forever beyond the possibility of succumbing to the deceits of Satan, joins him to the company of the saints, who will rise to meet Christ at the end, when he comes in glory to hand over the kingdom to God the Father that He may be all in all.
See Also: eschatology, articles on; sacraments, articles on; free will; judgment, divine (in theology); man, 3; resurrection of christ; will of god.
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[j. h. wright]