It is a common experience for people when going to a viewing at a funeral home, thinking how unreal it seems, to look upon the utter stillness and silence of the deceased. Lying before them is the person they knew and yet it is not. This unsettling experience often prompts one to reflect.
What is death? What happens to the person we knew and what will happen to us when our time comes? What exactly happens to the mind, the consciousness, our “life force” when the biological processes stop?
Death, and what lies beyond, are shrouded in mystery. Still, most cultures throughout history have had some belief in an afterlife, meaning they also had some belief in a transcendent component to our being which is not subject to the limitations of this temporal material reality. Divine teaching reveals that aspect to be the soul. The human person is not purely a bodily being confined to time, but is both corporeal and spiritual, which form a single nature, and is made in the image and likeness of the eternal Triune God (CCC 362-68).
The soul is the true living principle of a human person which, after bodily death, continues to exist. The body may return to the elements, but life is changed, not ended. It does not all end in oblivion, but is instead a transition and transformation of our being.
These truths give hope and also an awareness to choose wisely in this life, including the need to accept God’s saving love before we die if we are to spend the next life with him. At the point of death, our choices become final as all of the illusions and falsehoods that we clothe ourselves with are stripped away and our lives stand naked before God to be judged in his divine light of truth and love. We become the result of those decisions made of our own free will, as confirmed by the Lord who knows the truth (CCC 1021-22).
God will not force us to be something other than what we have chosen to be. He will not impose salvation upon anyone. If the proof of our life shows that we do not desire God’s presence, always thinking of ourselves, he will respect our choice. We call this conduct mortal sin, which destroys love in the heart and, if reconciliation is not sought, results in the definitive death of eternal self-exclusion from communion with God who is Life itself (see CCC 1033-37, (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 13 et seq.). This is hell. Christ spoken about it often out of love to warn us away from the ultimate tragedy of this second death.
God delights not in anyone’s death, and he implores us to choose life instead (Ezekiel 18:26-32). If one has fashioned a life fit for heaven as shown by his conduct here, if he has accepted and cooperated with God’s grace, he will enjoy the fullness of life in communion with the eternal Blessed Trinity. “It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love,” says Pope Benedict XVI, “such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy” (Spe Salvi, 12). Those who die in a perfect state of grace will know this supreme happiness immediately.
But because heaven is a place of pure holiness, the impurity of sin must necessarily be removed to enter, starting with Original Sin. This is accomplished through the graces one receives in baptism, ordinarily either by water, blood, or desire. Here, the new life of heaven is implanted in our hearts. Those virtuous persons who die without baptism, as with the righteous who lived before Christ and those who have never heard of him, the Church entrusts to the loving mercies of God, who is not bound by the sacraments (CCC 1257-61).
Baptism cleanses us of Original Sin, but it does not abolish our human weaknesses. Experience shows that we likely will go on to commit personal sins. However, not all sin is mortal. Some people die in the friendship of God, but burdened with these lesser venial sins, which wound love in the heart and mar spiritual life, and thus must be cleansed from the soul. In this Purgatory, we are transformed and purified in a way that may be experienced as suffering, but “it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God” (Spe Salvi, 47).
Healed and purged of impurities, we can enter into that life which is not simply seeing or knowing God, but blessed communion with him, rejoicing in his infinite goodness. Neither is this life an eternity existing as a disembodied spirit, a mere ghost of ourselves. The whole of our person is meant to be saved. Jesus assures us that like him, those who die in him will rise again in glorified bodies made for a new heaven and earth. This is the real life for which we are made, in which “there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain for the former world has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
This is the fourth in a series. Also, the Archdiocese of Washington Department of Life Issues has compiled some helpful resources to aid you in your reflection on end-of-life issues.