Friday, October 15, 2010

Are you ready for your death?

How many people think of death every now and then or ever? Should you?

Well, I think you should. Last night I was awaken by what sounded like someone in my apartment around 5:30am. It was really scary. I got up and carefully checked the whole house, but there was nothing there. My conclusion is that someone was upstairs and the sound traveled below. It was really quite creepy because it sounded like someone was right outside my door. I even thought I heard it again after I went to bed again.

I said a prayer to ward off any evil spirits. Then I went back to sleep. Around 8:30 I woke up again, and noticed Manasi just called, so I called her back. We chatted for a bit, then I went back to sleep.

When I went back to sleep this time, I had a very vivid and scary dream. Someone had entered my apartment. I got up to check who it was. Some large man wearing probably a leather jacket came in and went into the living room. I repeated hello hello over and over but he did not respond. I began to wonder if he was deaf.

But then he came into my room. Eventually he was joined by another man of similar description. The first man told me he was there to kill me. I was terrified. I realized he was a hitman. I had no idea this was a dream and thought for sure it was real. I had even asked myself if it was and came to the certain conclusion that this was indeed happening.

I couldn't make a cell phone call. I tried to divert his attention to something else while I secretly dialed 911. Eventually I had my phone in my hand and could possibly dial 911. However, I think I woke up before anything could happen. However, I do remember diverting his attention somewhat successfully.

I remember asking the other man if I could see a priest. Convinced they would kill me, I wanted to make a confession before death. To me that is the most terrifying possibility. It's not so much death itself but the afterlife.

That dream ended, and not too long after I was awaken around 9:30 by Tom upstairs who was knocking on the door and ringing the doorbell. That was also rather alarming. I assumed it was Manasi, but it wasn't. I came out in my housecoat to see what was going on. He told me I had to drive my car out because the excavating equipment would make it impossible to leave for the rest of the day till the night. So I quickly got dressed and went outside. He said they were starting in 5 minutes.

Anyway, after this traumatizing night, I realize people must consider their eternal fates. Are you prepared? Specifically are you ready for heaven?

I believe in these matters we must follow our consciences and be as careful as possible. For me, that means confessing any mortal sins to a priest, because that's how I believe Jesus instituted the act of forgiveness. I also believe forgiveness is possible through a perfectly contrite confession to God. What is perfectly contrite? It means you are sorry for your sins because you love God so much and are so sorry for having offended him.

I think a lot of people are way too casual on this topic. They believe one of the following:

1) The afterlife doesn't exist. We just turn to dust.

2) The afterlife exists but surely they are going to Heaven because God will forgive them anyway.

3) They were saved, and therefore no further action is required. All past, present, and future sins are blotted out and heaven is guaranteed.

4) We must be in a state of grace with God, and therefore we must strive to avoid sin as much as possible and if we do sin to confess them to another.

5) The afterlife exists but they are going to Hell

Here are my responses to those propositions:

1) The afterlife doesn't exist. We just turn to dust.
Are you willing to risk everything to believe this proposition? Are you 100% certain that the afterlife doesn't exist? Are you sure there isn't even a 0.1% chance that it does? Even if you believe there is but a 0.1% chance that Hell exists, you should take actions which will get you to Heaven. Why? Because the consequences are eternal. If the afterlife is eternal, as is usually the portrayal, then this life is a mere flash, much less than 0.1% of our entire existence. So mathematically it makes sense to live a good life in a way which would prepare us for Heaven even with just 0.1% belief in it.

2) The afterlife exists but surely they are going to Heaven because God will forgive them anyway.
This is called presumption, and it's considered a sin. It's the opposite of the moral value of despair, which is an abandonment of all hope that one will enter into Heaven. I will cover this in section 5. Presumption is an inordinate level of hope. It forsakes "fear of the Lord" in favor of seeing God as a servant to our desires.

St. Gregory from whom we get the term "Gregorian Chant", believed presumption to be a "daughter" of pride (or vainglory as he put it). I agree that presumption contains a strong element of pride, like a spoiled child who assumes his parent will not punish him no matter his misdeed.

This belief may have come from a commonly held opinion today that because God is Love (Deus Caritas Est), he could not allow anyone to go to Hell. However, this belief is not supported by evidence. Jesus speaks more about Hell than he does about Heaven. God is not only Love but also Justice. He gives each person free will and therefore the ability to either follow God and worship him, or to reject God and separate himself from him. A person is free to choose Hell and God will not overpower his free will decision.

3) They were "saved", and therefore no further action is required. All past, present, and future sins are blotted out and heaven is guaranteed.

This is a commonly held belief, which is similar to #2, however with some key differences. A strong literal reading of this belief has both reassurance and horror attached to it. It is reassuring to be 100% certain of one's salvation. But it is equally terrifying to believe that those incapable of hearing God's word should perish in eternal damnation. It would be as if God created them with no chance of redemption.

How does the horrific conclusion follow from the first? Well, it doesn't from necessity, but in practice, it usually does. Those who believe in once saved always saved, typically believe in a strict sense of salvation requiring an individual to be "saved".

However, I believe both of these extremes are false. The Gospels indicates that one must strive for salvation. However, salvation is something to be attained in the future, not something that we do and finish on Earth.

In Philippians 2:12, St. Paul says: "work out your salvation with fear and trembling." In other places, salvation is shown as being a process. Indeed, why would Jesus command people to tell their sins to "one another" and to let a "mere man" hear confessions if after being saved, salvation was guaranteed? It would make no sense.

As far as those invincibly ignorant, meaning they had no way to ever hear the Gospel, I believe they too can be saved. However, it goes beyond simply not hearing the Gospel. Even those intimately familiar with the Bible and the Church could potentially be saved without baptism, confession, or any assent of belief, if they are invicibly ignorant. The Catholic Church teaches that there are two types of people who may not be saved: 1) Those who know that Jesus and his Church are necessary for salvation yet never enter into the Church 2) Those who are among the faithful, who although knowing the truth of the Church, abandon it.

4) We must be in a state of grace with God, and therefore we must strive to avoid sin as much as possible and if we do sin to confess them to another.
I believe this is the most accurate representation of the afterlife. This represents humble submission to the will of God and contrition for our sins. It rejects pride and undue certainty which causes hubris. We acknowledge that we are pitiful sinners in need of God's redemption. It involves listening to God's voice and following his commands.

5) The afterlife exists but they are going to Hell
This is perhaps the saddest view of the afterlife. I met a man one time who clearly said he understood the Gospels but he is rejecting them and by doing so he knows the the consequences, including Hell, and he accepts that.

To me, his position is virtually oxymoronic. How can one understand Hell and all it entails then willfully choose it? I believe in our society there's been a sort of revision of what Hell is. Classically Hell is a complete separation from God. What it is actually like can only be expressed with symbolism, because it is not like Earth. The Christian tradition maintains that Heaven and Hell are outside of time and space. Therefore, the type of suffering experienced in Hell is uncertain.

The Catholic Catechism says the following about hell:

1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity.
Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire."617
The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

In terms of what hell is like, I point out where it says: "The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God."

I will be writing another blog post soon on whether hell must be the worst imaginable place. If you would like more information on what the Catholic Church has to say about hell, visit the catechism, and read starting at section 1033.

6) Only Heaven exists
Once again, this is a notion which has gained particular popularity in our culture. It varies slightly from a previous belief in which the person believes they will definitely go to Heaven and not possibly to hell. In this belief, it is posited that everyone goes to Heaven regardless because there is only a Heaven and hell doesn't exist. A nun once told me that hell doesn't exist. I met this nun this past weekend at the Basilica.

To believe only Heaven exists would mean Jesus was making up hell to scare people, and that hell had been revealed to the Jews in the Old Testament for the same reason. But we have no other accounts of God lying and never clarifying his position. How can we summarily dismiss hell, simply because it is unpleasant? We must provide evidence.

7) Notes:

7.1 Theologians

Some theologians have proposed the idea that although hell exists, it is possible that everyone has and will go to Heaven. They may not even teach that this is the case, but rather that it is theoretically possible. I agree with this assessment. The Church has never proclaimed someone to be in hell.

7.2 Belief becomes reality

A popular idea held by many, which is not enunciated, is that their beliefs will determine reality. So if the topic of hell is brought up, they will say "I don't believe in hell", as if their lack or belief in it, will cause it to not exist. We were raised in schools where teachers threw out a question and everyone's opinion was written on a white board and everyone was congratulated for being correct. From this, we have many people who think because they believe something, it becomes reality.

If they believe hell doesn't exist, then it doesn't. If they don't believe in an afterlife, then it doesn't exist.

The only being who can "think" something out of existence is God. Not surprisingly, many have placed themselves on this level, by acting as final arbiter of moral choices.

7.3 Afterlife is man-made

Many think hell was just "invented" by religious leaders in order to control the actions of people. Threatening someone with hell will make them operate the way you see fit, if they trust you as a moral authority.

However, this theory falls flat on many levels:
- Those pronouncing hell must also follow the moral code they prescribe. The past two popes, for instance, have gone to confession regularly, perhaps once a week or more. Pope John Paul II practiced self-mortification, and was not concerned about the food he ate or other material things. These would not be the actions of people who were creating ideas to scare people to do their will. These men lived (and live) very strict, moral lives, as do most of the Church law-givers. When was the last time you heard someone say "I want a wealthy, luxurious life. I think I will become a priest." I don't think so.

- Jesus spoke of hell (or Gehenna) often. He had no intention of gaining any kind of temporal power or matieral wealth. Jesus only spoke the truth and Christians and Muslims believe he was free from sin completely. A sinless man does not promote a lie.

- Our gift of free will radically allows us to decide the course of our lives. If we choose to disobey God and to seek separation from Him rather than closeness, God, in his eternal justice, cannot force us to love him. He will honor our free will decisions.

I suppose I could continue talking on this subject for quite some time. The basic point is that people must be ready. Live the life you believe God wants you to live.

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