Monday, 4 May 2015
What Happens After Death? part 1 BY REV. G. J. MACGILLIVRAY, M.A
THERE is a story told of the days when the first Christian missionaries came to preach the Gospel to our heathen forefathers. It is related that a certain king, hearing of one of these new teachers, called his counselors together to decide whether or not he should be received. And one of the old heathen priests stood up and said, “Hear me, O King. Sometimes it happens on a cold and dark winter night, when we are gathered together in this hall, and all is warm and bright within, that a little bird flies in out of the darkness; it remains a few moments in the light and warmth of the hall, and then again disappears into the darkness. And such is our human life. We come, we know not whence; we are here for a little space in this bright and beautiful world, and then we pass out again, we know not whither, into the dark unknown. Therefore my counsel is that we ask this new teacher Whether he can solve that mystery, and, if he can, let us gladly hear him.”
From time to time at least this question forces itself upon everyone: What becomes of us, when we go out into the darkness? What happens after death? Nothing is more certain than that every one of us must die. It may be soon, or it may be a few years distant but, in any case, not many years. And what then? You may put the question aside for a time; you may fill your thoughts with the affairs of this world; but sooner or later the haunting question returns. And so people discuss it, they write books and articles about it, giving their opinions and their reasons. And how eagerly they are all read!-although for the most part the writers merely darken counsel with many words. And so others, despairing of finding a solution through reason and argument, have recourse to the ancient practices of necromancy, revived in our day under the name of “Spiritualism.” They are told that by certain means they can get into direct contact with the spirits of the dead, and learn from them the secrets of that other life, although what guarantee they think they have that the spirits, if, they do come, are not lying spirits masquerading as the souls of their dead friends it is difficult to imagine. Indeed, one would think that the strange jumble of follies and contradictions, which make up most of these so-called revelations, would settle the matter for any sane man. A witty American, who had read many of them, summed it up very well by saying, that if these people had really “tapped the other world,” it was evident that they had “tapped it at the lunatic asylum end.”
We Catholics, however, answer these questions in a very different way. We do not indulge in vague speculations. Much less do we seek for information by attempting in unlawful ways to call up the spirits of the dead. For we believe and are sure that God Himself has told us all that we need to know. We believe that God has spoken. He has given us a clear and definite revelation, and has committed that revelation to His Church, which, according to His promise and by His assistance, teaches it clearly and without error to all who choose to listen. It is therefore not any human opinions that will be set forth in this pamphlet, but the things that God has revealed to us.
THE TWO WAYS
In the first place, then, God has clearly revealed to us the purpose or end for which He created us. He created us to live for ever in perfect and eternal happiness in union with Him in Heaven. So our Catechism begins with these questions and answers: “Who made you?-God made me-Why did God make you?-God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in the next.” Of what Heaven means we shall try to get a clearer idea later. But we must first understand that, although that is the end for which God created us, all men do not reach that end. How often we hear that phrase on the lips of foolish people, speaking of our eternal destiny, that “we are all going the same way.” People assume that, whatever the next world may be like, if there is any sort of happy state hereafter, somehow or other all men will attain to it. That is one of the most horrible deceptions, by which the devil leads men astray; and those who encourage the notion are doing the devil’s work most effectually, lulling men’s consciences to sleep, only to prepare for them a terrible awakening, when it is too late. No, we are not all going the same way. Some of us are going one way, and some another. And the two ways are directly opposite. Some of us will reach that glorious end, others will not. And the destiny of these latter will be very different, as we shall see presently.
GOD’S GIFT OF LIFE
On what, then, does our final destiny depend? Briefly, it depends upon whether, at the moment of death, we are in a “state of grace” or not. But this requires a few words of explanation. In order to be capable of that perfect union with God, for which He destines us, we have to be endowed by Him with a new life, a “supernatural” life. By nature, as we come into this world, we have not the capacity for union with God. The distance between the uncreated Being of God and our created being is too great. We must first be raised above our natural state. We must receive the gift of an entirely new and higher kind of life than that which we have by nature, raising us above the level of mere nature, making us fit to participate in the life of God Himself. That is the gift which is known as “Sanctifying Grace.” It is a spark, as it were, of the divine life, which raises us to God’s level, making us capable of a real friendship and intimate union with Him.
This is t he gift that comes through Jesus Christ. it was to this that He referred, when He said, “I am come that they may have life.” The Eternal Son of God came into the world, in order to bring to us this gift of a divine life, and it is only from Him that we can have it. Grace flows from Him to us. Normally it flows to us through the Church, which is His Body, and the Sacraments which He instituted for this purpose. We receive it first in Baptism, the Sacrament of the New Birth, and it is nourished and increased by the other sacraments. Normally, therefore, in order to have the gift of grace -it is necessary to belong to the Catholic Church. That is the way that God has appointed. But in fact the, grace of God does, as it were, overflow the appointed channels. To those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Catholic Church, and try to serve God in the best way they know, He gives grace in other ways. Indeed, God offers grace to every man, and it is entirely a man’s own fault if he does not choose to use it. But we need not go further into that now. Our point is that grace is an absolute necessity. No man can get to Heaven by living a life that is merely naturally good. He must somehow receive the gift of grace.
But even when we have received this gift, we may lose it. So long as we obey God’s commandments we keep it. But it may be lost by grave sin. If a man commits what is called a “mortal” sin, which means a grave and deliberate act of disobedience to God, he at once loses this gift of grace. He has, as it were, turned his back on God. He has forfeited God’s friendship. He has cut himself off from God, the Source of life, and his soul is dead. Still, God in His infinite mercy does not yet forsake him altogether. As long as the man remains in this world, God offers him the grace to repent. And, when he does repent, there is the Sacrament of Penance, by which the sin can be forgiven, and the man restored to grace and to God’s friendship. Or, if for any reason the sacrament is not available, an act of perfect contrition is enough; that is, an act of sorrow for his sin made out of the pure motive of love for God. And it is in this way that those who, through no fault of their own, do not belong to the Catholic Church can be restored to grace.
It is clear, then, that during this earthly life a man may receive God’s grace, lose it and regain it many times, because in this life our wills are variable. He may remain for a time in God’s friendship and grace, and then foolishly turn away from Him. Then he may turn back to Him again. And that may happen time after time, so that he is alternately in a state of grace and in a state of mortal sin, living in the friendship of God or cut off from Him. But sooner or later this mortal life, which is our time of probation, comes to an end, and after that there is no change. At the moment of death a man is either in a state of grace or in mortal sin. His will is either directed towards God or turned away from Him. And, as the will is at that moment, so it remains fixed for all eternity.
A man’s eternal destiny, therefore, depends entirely on this one thing, whether at the moment of death he is in a state of grace or in a state of mortal sin. In the one case he has within him that divine life which makes him capable of union with God; he is living in God’s friendship. In the other case he has not that divine life, and he can never regain it now. His will is turned away from God, it is in enmity against God; and so he must remain eternally separated from God.