What We Are at Death Is What We Are Forever

Your time on earth is fixed, and constantly diminishing — take life and death seriously

Bartolomeo Altomonte, “The Death of St. Joseph,” 18th century
Bartolomeo Altomonte, “The Death of St. Joseph,” 18th century (photo: Public Domain)

Almost a month has passed since we accepted ashes on our foreheads as a sign of our mortality. Lent is half over. We’ve spent the past four weeks meditating on death: its meaning; our human orientation to life, being, and goodness; how human beings, especially from the perspective of revealed religion (Judaism and Christianity) came to understand an afterlife; and how that process was bound up with man’s orientation towards goodness and his desire for justice.

Death defines us in a unique way. What we are at death is what we are eternally. Why?

God designed us for life. Life is God’s irrevocable gift: He does not take it back. 

As I have repeatedly noted, when God declares to Adam and Eve that if they sin they will die, the nexus between sinning and dying is not one God by chance arbitrarily imposed. It’s not that God arbitrarily connected some “punishment” to sin and, out of a range of possibilities, he chose death. No! When God speaks of death as the consequence of sin, he simply makes clear what is sin’s inevitable outcome — you cannot cut yourself off from God and still live, because you are not self-sufficient, you did not create or enliven yourself. If the lamp disconnects itself from the outlet, the power plant is not “punishing” the lamp. If the lamp is not connected to the source of its power, it cannot sustain itself. As the song “Memories” from Cats put it poetically: “The street lamp dies …”

We are not the source of our existence or being. To separate ourselves from the source of our existence or being, i.e., God, is to die. 

We are all sinners. We all, therefore, separate ourselves from God, and so we all die. We experience death as fearful, because the dissolution of death as we experience it is one also tainted by sin.

When Pope Pius XII solemnly defined the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he deliberately phrased what happened in this way: “the Immaculate Mother of God … having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (Munificentissimus Deus). That definition tells us a lot about ourselves.

Like us, Mary also “completed the course of her earthly life.” Unlike us, Mary did not “die.” She did not experience the end of her earthly life as we do because, free of all sin, she did not experience the dissolution of body and soul that we sinners do. Rather, as her earthly life completed its course, the integral person Mary, “body and soul,” transitioned from this life to eternity. 

By way of contrast, therefore, Mary shows us that the breaking apart of body and soul at death — the way we experience death — is a consequence of sin. 

It is the whole person, body and soul, who engages in moral action. The soul may decide the act of will to steal, but the bodily hand steals the purse. (Go watch Robert Bresson’s film, Pickpocket, which makes that obvious). The soul may choose the act of lying, but the bodily lips speak the lie. The soul may choose the act of adultery but, as Malcolm Muggeridge trenchantly observed, “sex on the brain is the wrong place to have it.”

So, when that unity of the person is broken in death, the person has become whom he is. (It’s also why we believe “in the resurrection of the body” and not just “eternal life of the soul,” because the whole person — body and soul — who was good or evil is the whole person — body and soul — who in justice must be the subject who enjoys or endures the consequences of what that person has become.)

Death is not, then, an arbitrary interruption of the film of our lives. That may have been what the Greeks thought: the Furies spun the thread of a man’s life, measured it, and arbitrarily snipped it. Christianity does not conceive of God as summarily “cutting us off.” 

Our departure from this life fixes whom we have become, and our faith in Providence should convince us that — even though the reasons may not always be apparent to us — God also chooses the moment when it is fit for man to leave this world. Perhaps we do not understand it, and perhaps the tragedy of human freedom is that death might come to foreclose an even worse damnation for a person … but the possibilities of freedom must allow for turning far from God.

Our reflection on death, therefore, should compel us to reflect on the meaning of life. It was Fénelon, I think, who observed that the one thing God is not generous with is time: it is fixed and it is constantly diminishing. It requires us, then, to take time seriously. As St. Turibius of Mongrovejo observed, “We must start working early in the morning, because time is not ours. We must give a strict account of it.” Or, as Marley warns us in Dickens’ Christmas Carol:

Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused!

In eternity, we reap the harvest we sowed in life. That is one reason why, for example, that the souls in Purgatory are passive vis-à-vis their own fate: they need our living human action to accomplish fully human and fully salvific moral action that is meritorious. That is one reason why the souls in Purgatory need us to do for them what they cannot, and why the Church affirms that the least suffering in this world may be more efficacious than the most arduous of Purgatory. Here, we are still a work in progress in which we have a hand.

So, let us take seriously two things: first, that our departure from this life defines who we are, and second, that our fixed lifetimes are the fleeting windows within which to engage in the definition of those lives.

Moderns seem somehow to doubt that God is just, that somehow God would “never” allow a soul to go to hell, that somehow all human lives have “happy endings.” As human life itself teaches us, love can be unreciprocated. Love can be rejected. Why, then, do we expect love of the God we cannot see (1 John 4:20) will somehow replace the turning away from love towards our brothers and sisters we do?

There are certain illusions that seem to have popularity in our day. One is there is some kind of “final option,” some kind of final choice made before we die. 

There are two problems with this. One is that it presupposes a false kind of anthropology, that there are over here the individual, discrete choices we make in life (like caring for someone or stealing from them) and over here is some great “choice for or against God.” 

God is not an abstraction, and neither is morality. We don’t “choose” God or not God independently of the ordinary moral choices we make. Even Jesus told us so: when he speaks of judgment, he tells us that “loving God” cannot be separated from feeding or giving drink to or clothing the least of one’s brothers. 

The other problem with “final option” approaches is that we have no evidence for it. Perhaps we may hope that, in the last moment of our lives, Jesus may ask us to come to our senses: “Really, John?” But we have no evidence that God does not simply take our lives on the terms we’ve built them.

Also, life doesn’t normally work that way. We become certain people by acquiring certain habits, be they good (virtues) or evil (vices). Our habits make subsequent deeds like them easier, more natural, “connatural.” So the kind of person we have become is, short of a miracle, not the work of a last minute quirk of fate or some overpowering miracle. Rather, as the Dominican Walter Farrell put it so well in his underappreciated masterpiece, A Companion to the Summa: 

The mansions of hell, no less than the mansions of heaven, are not makeshift shacks thrown up after the darkness of death has come down upon life. Both are built slowly, carefully, stone by stone, through all the abundant moments than measure the length of a man’s life. … Heaven or hell … never comes as a shock; it is the harvest that was planted so long ago, watched, cultivated, defended, and now reaped in all its fullness. It is the house at the end of the road that could lead nowhere else.

Moderns speak of a “life project.” In some sense that’s true — except we need to reckon with the fact that that project is settled by death.

So do we take life and death seriously?

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

Don’t Wait to Cram for Your ‘Final Exam’

“Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation.” (CCC 1022)