Human beings are mortal, that is, in our current condition we cannot avoid dying. Once we grow out of infancy - sooner or later - we come to realize that we will one day die, that our life as we know it on planet Earth will come to an end. How we understand our mortality and what we do with this knowledge determines to a great degree the quality of our life here, the range of possibilities for the time we have, our openness to meaningful relationships with others, and also what we can expect after the passage through our death.
Death precipitates or "forces" to happen what we call the "last things", that is, "What will happen to us after we die?" The Jewish and Christian traditions believe that God has revealed to humanity what to expect immediately after we die. Death is the first of the "four last things" which are: death, judgement, heaven, or hell.
DOES GOD EXIST? - Death is one of those human realities that is inescapable. Long before we may ever come close to our own death or even its possibility, we are confronted by the death of all other living things and, in time, the death of someone we know and may even love intrudes rudely into our life and awareness. As it does, it causes an upheaval within us of questions, doubts, and fears amid a whole range of human emotions, many of which are intense and unpleasant. The natural human impulse is to live in denial and avoid even the mere thought of death, but death is one of those things that just won't go away and, sooner or later, we need to face up to it.
One of the first effects which death provokes within us is the question about God. GOES GOD EXIST? Either God exists or he doesn't exist, which leaves every human being in one of three states:
- I believe in God or
- I think God may exist but I'm not sure or
- I don't believe in God
1. I believe in God
We are all so different, but if God exists, then it makes sense that everyone should be able to come into a real and lively connection with God, based on the evidence from the Jewish and Christian sacred or inspired Scriptures contained in "The Bible". If one single thing is unmistakably clear from the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, it is that God exists and that He wants a real, personal relationship with every single human being who is willing to be open to what it is that God offers.
To believe in God is, in other words, to at least - or to begin with - to "give God the benefit of the doubt" or to go on with our life "as though God exists" and to believe that "God is trustworthy or deserves my trust or has given sufficient proof that He is good and means me no harm but only good.
This fundamental or basic act of belief and trust opens the human mind, heart, and spirit to the divine being that is God. God has revealed to Jews and Christians that He respects our freedom; so He needs our consent in order to enter into our life in a real and substantial way. Once a person is willing to believe in and trust God, their trust allows God to respond to their faith and He is now free, in full respect for their freedom of conscience, to take initiatives that the believer begins to experience in a more personal way.
How each person actually experiences God varies from person to person, given our unique human profile at every level, but there are consistencies because of the stability that is in God. The Bible records God's revelation to the Jewish People as He told them of his "ways". We know this to be true in our human relationships, that each person has his or her own "ways" of thinking, feeling, acting, behaving, and otherwise expressing themselves. Well, so does God have "his ways" and we can know what his ways are by reading the Bible, by sharing with other people, and through our own personal experience of God.
When all of these sources "line up" in a consistent way, then we know we are on the right track. When they don't line up and there are inconsistencies and contradictions, then we know we need to do more research, we need to consult those wise and holy people who know God better than we do.
2. I think God may exist but I'm not sure
It is clear from the above that if God exists, then He is a being that wants a personal relationship with human beings. For this reason, as long as a person remains trapped in the labyrinth of the mind and tries to go about understanding God or his existence as a problem to be solved intellectually; then it is very unlikely that much progress will be made. There would remain too many unanswered questions such as those that follow.
One thing is certain and it is this, that as long as a person remains exclusively in the mind, it is not likely that they will experience God personally. Why not? Because God is bigger than our mind and we cannot succeed in trying to make God fit into our mind. God is a divine being, an infinite being who has no limits, which means that He is eternal. God had no beginning and will have no end, and we cannot understand that. If we try to understand it by our intellect alone, we are likely to come to the logical conclusion that it cannot possible be true because it makes no sense to our intellect.
On the other hand, there is something in the human being that has a glimpse of the infinite, of the eternal. Believers understand that our human spirit or soul continues after death, that it contains the essence of the person we are becoming throughout our life, and this essence of who we are does not end in the death of the body but goes on. Our soul is in fact immortal, it will have no end. Our soul is not infinite or eternal like God, because unlike God, our soul had a beginning. It was created at the very same moment that we were conceived in our mother's womb. So our soul is "forever young" and it has within it a "homing beacon" aimed towards God or a "nostalgia for eternity".
Still, as long as we explore these mysteries and realities exclusively through the intellect, there remains between us a chasm that we are unable to cross by our own efforts. God wants a relationship and this means we need to allow God room to take initiatives and to respond to our prayers and to provoke or challenge us; as any friend would do and actually does in real life.
As long as a person remains predominantly unsure or uncertain, then, it is probably because that person is keeping God at a "safe distance". It's sort of like a young man who loves women from a distance but feels very uncomfortable when one of them gets "too close" because he is not ready yet to enter into friendship with "a real woman". In reverse it's the same for a young woman who loves men from a distance but feels very uncomfortable when one of them gets "too close" because she is not ready yet to enter into friendship with "a real man".
3. I don't believe in God
Some people appear not to believe in God but in actual fact they probably would believe in God if they could discover God as He truly is. In other words, many people seem to reject representations of God that are in fact an insult to the true God as He is in himself. As my friend Bishop Tom Dowd loves to say, "I don't believe in their god either!" In other words, the distorted image of God that people reject, well, we also reject those distorted images of God. In so many ways God has been given a "bad rap" and all too often those who are guilty are believers, both laity and clergy.
Other people who don't believe in God or who deny the existence of God come to this conviction because of their great love for humanity, for the environment, and for the universe. These are often very sensitive human beings and also very bright. They love life, other people, and the world, and it torments them to see the terrible state of human society, of the environment, and of life in general. Because we find ourselves in such a mess, these good folks find it offensive to think that God exists precisely because of the mess. This brings us to a few hard questions to which atheists or agnostics can find no answer.
IF GOD EXISTS, WHY DOES HE ALLOW EVIL?
God has revealed much about himself, about his creation of the universe, about life, and about us in his "revealed word" in Sacred Scripture as we find it in The Bible. It is abundantly clear beginning with the creation narrative in Genesis right through to the end of the prophetic statement of hope in God's final triumph over evil in the Book of Revelation that God created us human beings with a very precious gift - our faculty of will - which includes intelligence, sensitivity and feeling, judgement, a capacity for decision and commitment, and conscience.
God created human beings to be free because He intends for us to enjoy friendship with God. Even though God is a divine being, mysteriously composed of three divine persons in one single divine being - as revealed by Jesus and as reported in the four Gospels - what is amazing is that this great and infinitely superior being has created us capable of friendship with Him. We can best come to understand the intentions and attitudes of God by looking at good human parents. Although they are superior to their children in age, experience, and wisdom, still they desire to one say enjoy with their children a relationship of friendship as equal to equal, though different. Parents desire that one day their children will get over their immature resentments and generously decide to show their parents respect and kindness, offering them the benefit of the doubt with regards to their parents' faults.
Parental love and devoted service is a fairly good reflection of the infinitely greater and more perfect love that God has for us human beings, his creations, as we discover that He is inviting us to come into a loving relationship with the Holy Trinity as beloved children of the Father, beloved brothers and disciples of Jesus Son of God, and beloved living dwellings of the Holy Spirit.
WHAT IS EVIL?
Evil could then be defined as anything that would hinder the wonderful plan of God for the perfection of his creation and the unfolding of his desire that human beings experience life in all its abundance in a loving relationship with our Creator. Evil also includes anything that brings human beings to do harm to themselves or to others or to God's creation, or to hinder others from entering more fully into God's wonderful plan for our happiness and fruitfulness.
God has revealed that evil was first introduced by a rebellious angel, "Satan" or the "Devil" into his Creation and caused disorder - first among angels - and then among the first human beings. The names attributed to "the rebel" mean "the accuser" or "the opponent", that is, the one who accuses God, opposes God, and accuses human beings, the enemy of humanity and of God.
WHY DID and DOES GOD ALLOW EVIL?
It was only out of love and extravagant generosity that God created anything at all, but especially that He created living beings with the faculty of free will; so that both angels and human beings, we would be capable not only of receiving love but also of giving true, selfless, self-giving love.
The simple existence of freedom introduces the possibility of disobedience, rebellion, or refusal to go along with God's plan, preferring instead to follow other plans and opinions, thereby rejecting God in order to pursue one's own "original paths". Only God loves perfectly and infinitely; so only God's plans can bring about perfect outcomes of love and abundant life for all involved. In rejecting the plan and will of God, the devil and other rebellious angels introduced chaos and instability into the order of God's Creation, and when human being succumbed to the same temptation, that chaos and instability was also introduced into our existence on Earth.
The result is that we are inclined now to reject God and prefer our own will, and in so doing, we do harm to ourselves and to others, and we have lost our capacity to enjoy God's friendship and love. All that we touch tends to turn out badly, and whereas death would have been a much anticipated and blessed transition from mortality to immortality, from Earth to Heaven; now death is something that we fear and loath. Ending our own life is the logical outcome of refusing God's will, of being unable or unwilling to trust in God or in his love for us.
Still, God has allowed evil and continues to allow it because, like a good parent, God our Creator and Father wants all his children to have the pleasure and satisfaction of working with our Father to bring about his perfect solution to all the evil in the world, beginning each of us with our own life.
IF GOD EXISTS AND HE ALLOWS EVIL, WHAT IS GOD DOING ABOUT EVIL?
The entire Bible is a chronicle of what God has been doing and continues to do about evil. The highlight is when God sent his divine Son into the world to become human like us through the cooperation of Myriam of Nazareth - Mary - who accepted to conceive Him through the power and overshadowing of the Holy Spirit and gave Him birth in Bethlehem, calling Him Jesus with the love and support of her husband Joseph.
Jesus showed us how it is now possible, with the help and power of the Holy Spirit, for human beings to live once again in friendship with God, as beloved children of God, in lively communities of faith which Jesus called his "Church" or "Assembly" of all those who believe in Him and have been initiated into his mysteries or, in other words, have been introduced into a sharing with Jesus in the life, love, and vitality of the Holy Trinity.
God tells us that we can know that we love God and have welcomed the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit into our lives when we see that we live and conduct ourselves just as Jesus did. We cannot do this on our won, but can only do it in a trusting relationship with God the Father through Jesus and by the power of love and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Jesus' Church is the "home on Earth" in the midst of which we have access to the divine life that is in God and which Jesus wants to pour into us.
Simply put then, all that God asks and expects from human beings is that we accept to participate as fully as we can in our own life, in the lives of others as good neighbors and citizens, and in the whole world around us, and that we awaken to the presence of God, to the ongoing contribution of God, and to the love of God which is driving all that exists and all that God does. To put this in terms that our children would use and understand, it is like God is saying to humanity, "Here I am, will you come out and play?" We can accept to come out and play with Him or we can refuse.
Recap of the 4 "last things" - Death - Judgement - Heaven - Hell - with the temporary provision by God's mercy of Purgatory for souls in need of final purgation before entering into Heaven.
LAST THING # 1 - DEATH - here we mean the death of our mortal body, the surrender of our life breath, the beginning of our body's return to the "dust" of which we are made and to which we will return, all that is left once all the breath and water leave or are taken away. When we speak of death we also mean that at the end of life in our body on Earth, the essence of who we will have become until the moment of death, or our "soul", will go through a separation from this life and enter into another "realm", or level of existence, which we refer to as "eternity" or "eternal life".
QUESTION - Unless we understand what leaving our body behind means, where we are going next, or what we will need in order to be able to face what comes next; then how can we know whether or not we are ready to "move on" from this world into the next?
God has revealed to humanity through his divine revelation in the Sacred Scriptures of the Jews and Christians - The Bible - that human beings are immortal spirits embodied in a mortal flesh. When the body dies it releases the immortal soul or spirit into God's presence. The soul is of a nature designed to "contain" within it in a living way all that makes up a human person in all their uniqueness. All that we think, feel, say, do, behave, take, and give - all our decisions, words, actions, behaviors, and deeds - continually build up the person we are becoming. When we die and the body releases our soul, our spirit is "fixed" in its final state.
It is somewhat like a piece of clay put into the kiln which is fired up. Once the clay is baked into a piece of pottery, it can no longer be changed. It can be glazed and put into the kiln again and comes out in its final form. This second burning could be an analogy for the process of Purgatory. The point though is that once we leave the body behind we lose our ability to modify, to change, to convert, to purify ourselves. We will have become helpless to improve ourselves and will be entirely dependent on the mercy of God and the prayers of the saints in Heaven, of the souls in Purgatory, and of the faithful on Earth.
For this reason alone, then, it is highly unwise to take upon ourselves the awesome decision about the moment of our death and give death to ourselves, but rather much wiser to leave the moment of our death in God's most capable hands.
Only God understands what eternal life will be and what condition we will need to be in for to be ready to endure the full intensity of eternal life in God's company. From God's point of view, then, it makes perfect sense to allow us on Earth to undergo any number of trials so that these trials may give us opportunity to struggle and be purified in our willingness to accept to endure the struggle with full trust and confidence in God and his mercy.
God knows what He is doing. Either I accept that or I don't, but woe to me if I don't, because then I am unwilling to trust in God, and if I can't trust in God, than in whom can I trust?
SO WHAT HAPPENS TO US WHEN WE DIE?
LAST THING # 2 - JUDGEMENT - God won't need to judge us; we will judge ourselves.
First of all, we need to understand the teaching of our Roman Catholic Tradition on what happens at the moment of death. Unlike the "Hollywood" scenarios picturing us coming before God as a harsh judge sitting on a judge's bench with gavel in hand; we may be shocked to discover that what will take place as judgement will not so much be God passing judgement on us, but rather us judging for ourselves what is the truth about our life and, as a result, what we deserve.
WHEN WE DIE THERE ARE THREE "DOORS" - 3 SCENARIOS
LAST THING # 3 - HEAVEN - is simply being with God, entering into the intimate family life of the Holy Trinity. Saints are souls who begin living in Heaven while still on Earth, already living in the radiant light of God's merciful love and trying to draw other souls in with them.
Scenario #1 - HEAVEN - This soul will see how God has prepared it for Heaven and will want to welcome his gift and accept his invitation to enter into "the Father's House". "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master!" Matthew 25:21 JOY!
LAST THING # 4 - HELL - is simply being apart from God, refusing to have anything to do with the family life of the Holy Trinity, preferring instead the miserable and hateful company of demons and the damned. Doomed souls doom themselves by refusing all grace or aid or mercy or opportunity to change and repent sent by God. Already living in Hell while still on Earth, they try to relieve their misery by dragging other souls into the darkness with them.
Scenario #2 - HELL - This soul will see finally all the truth about God's love and goodness, but it will resent all of it because of the way it has chosen to live life on Earth for itself in selfish ways. Like those who hated and condemned Jesus because He was embarrassingly good, this soul will also hate God and refuse to enter into his presence, apart from the fact that it will find the intense burning heat of God's love impossible and excruciating to bear. Ironically, this soul will prefer to go to Hell with all the other miserable souls and all the demons; rather than have to endure any longer the presence of God. On the other hand, to continue for ever in its misery will certainly be torment, and equally painful will be to live for ever with the same impure desires which on Earth could never be fully or permanently satisfied. ETERNAL FRUSTRATION AND MISERY WITH ONLY ITSELF TO BLAME BUT INCLINED TO PASS THE BUCK OF BLAME TO GOD AND TO OTHERS....
LAST THING # 3A - PURGATORY - is a temporary measure whereby God prepares souls for Heaven who aren't quite ready to endure the intensity of his radiant presence and love. Souls who on Earth trust in God's love and accept to endure all trials and sufferings that come are already experiencing this process of God's purifying mercy and love. The more we accept to endure everything that comes to us in this life, the less we will need to be purified after we die. One way or another, we need to submit ourselves with trust to the loving scrutiny of God before we can enter into the eternal company of the Holy Trinity and all the angels and saints.
Scenario #3 - PURGATORY - This soul will see that it is partially ready to go in to be with God for ever, and it will want to go in, but it will recognize that it is still "unclean" or impure in its thoughts, desires, feelings, or track record of behavior, or unrepented sins. Too embarrassed to be able to endure God's perfect love, it will be glad instead to go to the "waiting room" of Purgatory to be cleansed of all that cannot be allowed to enter into God's loving presence. However, not being able to go in yet into the wondrous beauty and love of Heaven will be quite painful, and this will be part of the fire needed to burn away impurities and prepare the soul for Heaven. PAINFUL WAITING....
1. When a person dies who has believed in God and has entered into a personal relationship with God by opening up their whole life to God with trust, looking to know and do God's will as Jesus did.
When true believers die, their death comes after many experiences - in proportion to their age at their death - and trials, and to the degree that they have truly come to know, trust, and love God; then to that same degree when they die and come face to face with God, they will find themselves at home. In the face of Jesus they will recognize the One who has loved and supported them their whole life long, the same One who forgave them their sins and faults so many times.
To the extent that there were still facets of God that they did not know about or that they only saw in distorted ways; then to that extent their encounter with God after death will also surprise them, but this new knowledge of God will purify their mind, heart, and spirit - this fuller revelation will relieve them of any burdens or shadows they may still carry on account of having partially misunderstood God and his ways.
2. When a person dies who has believed in God, but has not entered into a personal relationship with God but has been loath to open up their whole life to God with trust; while still on Earth, they will have remained in their doubts, hesitating by the side of the pool but never diving in, and as a result will not have looked to know and do God's will as Jesus did.
When they finally see in all its clarity and wonder the full truth of God's infinite love for humanity, and the full extent of Jesus' courage in demonstrating the Father's love for us to the point of shedding his very last drop of blood on the Cross; then the doubting believer will probably experience varying degrees of embarrassment and regret. This person is unlikely to suddenly be ready to endure the full blast of God's intense and perfect love. Such a person won't want to enter into Heaven, at least, not yet, because the intense furnace of God's love would be felt as far too intense that it would hurt.
I believe that most human beings have at least once felt the intense love of someone for them and also found it uncomfortable for any number of reasons. One simple reason might be that this total intense love of someone makes me feel a burden of obligation to love them back the same way, and I may not be ready or may not want to love that much. This is one of the reasons why Jesus was put to death, that He caused, simply be being present, the religious leaders to feel excruciatingly uncomfortable.
The Roman Catholic teaching from the earliest times that God in his mercy would not force such souls into Heaven; nor would He condemn them to Hell, but would provide them with time to allow themselves to be purified by God's burning love, allow God to burn away all impurity of mind, heart, or spirit, for as long as it takes. This process, more than a place, is called Purgatory. When Our Lady of Fatima gave explanations and teachings to the three little shepherd children to whom she appeared in Portugal in 1917; she told them that some of the people whom they knew that had recently died would be in Purgatory until the end of time, when would come the Final Judgement.
3. When a person dies who has not believed in God, they also will not have entered into any kind of personal relationship with God, nor opened up their whole life to God with trust, nor looked to know and do God's will as Jesus did.
For such a person, coming face to face with God is far more likely to be a very shocking experience indeed. Such a person will suddenly find the whole fortress of their atheistic reasoning crumbling in the brilliant glare and intense heat of God's selfless and boundless love. To the extent that they came to hate God, then their attitudes will cause them great and intense suffering upon discovering that God in no way deserves such treatment, but that they are unwilling to repent or let go of their hatred. They may find they have passed judgement on God and found Him guilty and are unwilling to change their judgement; so they will certainly not want to spend eternity in God's company. Their only choice then will be to enter into the miserable company of those consigned to Hell.
While we can expect that our loving God would never want anyone - angels or human beings - to spend eternity in Hell away from his loving presence in Heaven; nevertheless, it is only just that God create the possibility of Hell, for angels and human beings to be separated from God for all eternity. If there were no hell, then any demons or damned souls who would otherwise be admitted to Heaven would, in their misery, turn Heaven into Hell anyway. God's only option then is to allow Hell to exist, if for no other reason than to separate Satan and his demons from the blessed in Paradise to protect them from the devils' hatred and interference.
DON'T BE SO QUICK TO CONSIGN PEOPLE TO HELL
They may or may not be in need of purgation and, it is conceivable, they may possibly be forgiven and purified by God's merciful love in a single instant of all their sins and of all punishment due to all the many consequences of their sins. Only God can know and do this. So let's not be so quick to consign people to Hell based only on our superficial observations of their external behaviors, words, and actions while they lived on Earth. Only God knows the mind, heart, soul, and conscience.
DON'T BE SO QUICK TO "CANONIZE" PEOPLE AND ASSUME THEY ARE IN HEAVEN
For similar reasons then it would be foolish for us to assume that someone who has died is now in Heaven with God, and with all the angels and saints. There is nothing wrong with hoping and even believing that a remarkably good person who has died "in the odor of sanctity" may very well be in Heaven. This is particularly true if their death is accompanied by a fragrance as of flowers when there are none or by a more mysterious perfume with no tangible cause for it. Some saints have died amid such fragrances, and this gave rise to the expression "dying in the odor of sanctity".
Still, no matter how favorably we may feel about a person who has died, we do best to cultivate the hope that God will admit them to Heaven while we continue to pray for "the repose of their soul", that is, that our prayers may encourage them to fully accept the mercy of God and submit themselves completely to his merciful judgement and, if need be, the process of purgation under the action of his divine mercy. This is why we pray for our deceased loved ones and for the souls in purgatory. This is a pious practice whereby faithful disciples unite themselves by acts of will and devotion to the saving action of God on Earth and in the heavens beyond the gates of death.
LET'S NOT GAMBLE WITH OUR ETERNAL DESTINY - THESE ARE THE HIGHEST STAKES
Notwithstanding these considerations, it would be very unwise for human beings to presume in a cavalier way on God's mercy and fail to take responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings, words, actions, attitudes, and behaviors in this life and put it all off to the final moment. Only a fool would make such a risky gamble when one considers the value of unending eternal life. Yes, God is merciful and kind, understanding and patient, but He is no fool. We cannot trick God or bargain with Him, and it is very foolish to try. We may be able to fool other human beings, but we cannot fool God.