Wednesday, 6 May 2015
What Happens After Death? part 2. BY REV. G. J. MACGILLIVRAY, M.A
Sooner or later every one of us must die. Death, of course, is simply the parting of the soul from the body. Nobody knows exactly when the soul leaves the body. We think a man is dead when he stops breathing, or when the heart stops beating. But most theologians think that the soul lingers for some time after that. However that may be, there certainly comes a moment when the soul does definitely leave the body. Now, the first thing that happens after that is the judgment. In that very instant it is judged. In that instant the fate of the soul is fixed for all eternity.
How exactly will the judgment take place? It is impossible for us to imagine it, or to form any clear picture of it. All pictures drawn from earthly tribunals are beside the mark, for they can only represent the transactions of this material world, and here we are dealing with the judgment of a disembodied spirit. One or two facts, however, are perfectly clear, And first, that the soul, when it leaves the body, will be vividly conscious of the presence of the judge. That is the first thing which the soul will perceive when it leaves. the body. We are, indeed, always in God’s presence, for in Him we live and move and are, and even in this life we may at times be more or less conscious of that presence. But immediately after death, when all material things have faded from our senses, it will suddenly become far more clear and unmistakable. Only those who are already saints will immediately see Him face to face, but somehow we shall all be made vividly aware of the presence of that Being, whom some have loved and tried to serve constantly all through life, while others have neglected Him, disobeyed Him, or even denied His existence; that Being of infinite power, of awful sanctity, of infinite goodness and mercy, yet infinitely hating sin. And the soul, finding itself in that Presence, will feel itself searched through and through, everything naked and open to His unerring gaze.
All its life will flash before it. Imagine a cinematograph film of your whole life unrolled before you, every deed, every word, every thought faithfully portrayed-everything, the good and the bad, even your most secret thoughts, which were known to none but yourself and God. And that, not gradually, but all in an instant. We have heard stories of something of that kind happening to drowning men, who have been restored to consciousness when life was nearly extinct. Whether that actually happens in such circumstances or not, it will certainly happen the moment after death.
But it is not only all the past that will be unrolled before the newly departed soul. It will see something even more important-namely its present state. It will see itself as it is. And that indeed is the one thing that will supremely matter-not what it has been, but what it is at that moment. For, as we have seen, every man (at least every man who has grown up and come to the full use of reason) is at the moment of death either in a state of grace or in a state of mortal sin. In one way or another grace was offered to him. If he refused it, then he rejected God with his eyes open; he deliberately sinned and destroyed his own soul. And now he will see himself as he is, as by his own sinfulness he has made himself, horrible and loathsome in the sight of God, and now also in his own sight. Throughout his earthly life such a man may have studiously deceived himself, shutting his eyes to the facts. He may have been esteemed and praised by men. Even now they may be singing his praises. Presently they may be having a magnificent funeral, with crowds of mourners, heaps of white flowers on his coffin. But what comfort will that be to the wretched soul, who sees himself as he is in the blazing searchlight of the Divine Presence?
But if, on the other hand, the soul is in a state of grace, then indeed the sight of itself will fill it with joy and astonishment. It will see itself adorned with heavenly beauty, still spotted and stained perhaps in some degree with the remains of sin,. but still essentially beautiful, shining with the beauty of God’s grace, a reflection of the Uncreated Beauty, that is God Himself.
The judgment, then, will consist in this divine illumination, and this seeing of the facts. We shall see our state, the state which we have reached, and which is now eternally fixed. And, as we recognise our state, in the same instant we shall have entered on that destiny that befits our state. If anyone is then in a state of sin, without grace, without the divine life, he will at once find himself in that place of outer darkness, of eternal separation from God, which is Hell. He, on the other hand, who is in a state of grace, may still be detained for a time in that place of suffering and purification which we call Purgatory. But that is only temporary, for his end is now certain, and there is no possibility of his failing to reach it. Sooner or later he will enter into the unveiled presence of God, into that perfect union with Him and possession of Him, which is Heaven.
There is no doubt that is how the judgment takes place. No need of any apparatus of witnesses, or judge’s sentence spoken in words, or literal “sending” to Heaven or to Hell. When such things are spoken of in Holy Scripture, that is all mere imagery, to bring home the reality of it to the imagination. But in fact it will all seem to take place inevitably and, as it were, automatically. So St. Thomas Aquinas explains it. The way he puts it is this. He says that, just as heavy bodies fall by their own weight, and light bodies necessarily rise because of their lightness, so souls that are in sin are carried inevitably by the weight of their sins to Hell, while those that are in grace as inevitably rise to Heaven, unless they are hindered for a time by the remains of sin, which must first be purged away.
Everything depends, then, on this one thing, whether at the moment of death we are in a state of grace or not. And of whether that will be the case or not no one can be certain. So long as we are in the course of this mortal life our end is uncertain. That is why St. Paul bids us “with fear and trembling work out your own salvation.” And again he says, “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended. But one thing I do: forgetting the things that are behind and stretching forth myself to those that are before, I press towards the mark, to the prize of the supernal vocation of God in Christ Jesus.” Let us never, therefore, imagine ourselves to be secure. For, if even St. Paul was not, how can we be? Let us not, indeed, be faint-hearted. Let us have supreme confidence in God’s goodness, that, if only we will do our best, He will supply our deficiencies, He will finish the good work that He has begun in us. Still, we are not at the end yet. And therefore, so long as we are in this world, we have to “press towards the mark, to the prize of the supernal vocation of God in Christ Jesus.”
We have now to go a little further into the meaning of those terms, that have so far only been mentioned, Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. And, first, what do we know about Hell? To begin with, we know quite certainly that it exists. Our Lord Himself spoke of it in terrible and unmistakable terms, the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, the Gehenna of fire where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched. To deny its existence, therefore, is to deny Christ. It is to make Him a wanton deceiver of the worst kind. It is to accuse Him of frightening us with bogeys, with empty threats of something that has no existence in fact. No, He would not do that. He told us of it, because it is a fact, and because in His love and mercy He would have us warned in time.
But of its exact nature we know little. The chief facts we know are these. First, it is eternal. The soul that has once entered Hell is there for ever. People sometimes ask whether, if a soul in Hell were to repent, it could not at last find forgiveness and release. But the fact is that a soul in Hell cannot repent and does not wish to repent. After death the will is no longer variable, as it is in. this life. It is fixed. And the will of the lost soul is fixed in enmity against God. That is the terrible condition to which it has brought itself by its persistence in evil, its constant refusal of the grace of repentance, while repentance was possible, and its final and definite turning away from God. It does not want God. It does not want Heaven. It hates God. And it is precisely this hatred of God, this aversion from God, which separates it eternally from Him. And that eternal separation from God is Hell. This, therefore, is the second fact that we know. Hell is separation from God. It is this separation which constitutes the chief element in the pain of Hell.
This is what is called the “pain of loss.” It is not difficult to understand this. Imagine the unhappy soul which has definitely and finally cut itself off from God by rejecting every offer of God’s grace up to the last moment. So long as it was in this world it was able to find some happiness in the things of sense. But now it has left all that behind. It goes forth utterly alone into a vast solitude, where there is nothing that can make it happy except God. But it is cut off from God. Therefore it can find no source of happiness anywhere. It is driven back upon itself, with nothing to relieve its utter loneliness. And therefore it must be eternally miserable.
In addition to this “pain of loss” there is also something that is called the “pain of sense,” produced by something that is called fire. What the nature of that fire is, and how it acts upon the soul, we do not know. All we can say is that it is some kind of material environment, which confines the soul, restraining its energies, driving it back upon itself, and so producing a pain, which is best represented as the pain of fire.
These are terrible facts to contemplate. But they are facts revealed by God. He has revealed them to us, in His goodness, to warn us. To dwell too much upon the horrors of Hell might easily become morbid. But to ignore it would be unutterable folly. Hell exists, and there is a way that leads to Hell. That is the way of self-indulgence, of carelessness, of worldliness, of neglect of prayer, and especially of pride. All we have to do is to recognise the fact, to take the warning to heart, steadily to set our faces in the opposite direction, and constantly to pray for grace to persevere.