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Deacon-structing the Four Last Things

Deacon Pedro

Monday, November 2, 2020

Detail of The Last Judgment by Viktor Vasnetsov (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
In a recent episode of Make A Joyful Noise, one of my trivia questions had to do with the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body. My guest, Noelle Garcia, was able to explain the doctrine very well: After the resurrection, our souls will be reunited with our bodies, but they will be transformed into glorified bodies.
Although I'm sure many of you are familiar with this doctrine, how often do you really think about death? We may often think of Heaven (especially when Jesus keeps explaining what the Kingdom of Heaven in like), but how often do you think of Purgatory? How often do you think of Hell? Not often, I bet.
And I am certain that most of us never think of Judgment.
But November is the time of year when the Church especially asks us to recall these things. It is the time when we remember our deceased loved ones all month long. And yesterday and today are even more particularly marked out for our remembrance as the Feast of All Saints and All Souls' Day.
Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell are what the Church refers to as the Last Things. Traditionally, they were preached about during Advent (as we begin to get all those readings about the end times), although I suspect most of us have never heard a homily about the Last Things.
Before we begin, let me make clear that we believe in life everlasting; we profess that every time we pray the Creed. We all long for Heaven, for that should be our final destination: We are created for Heaven. God wants us in Heaven.
But there are a few things that have to happen first.
The Catechism tells us that in death, God calls us to Himself (#1011) and that because of Christ, death has a positive meaning (#1010). The Church teaches that death is a consequence of sin (#1008, 1018; see Romans 5:12), and St. Paul reminds us that the “last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Yet, what is not often mentioned is that death is also a remedy for sin, for after death we will sin no more.
When we refer to “death” as one of the Four Last Things, we are talking about bodily death (as opposed to eternal death, which we will see below). This death is merely the separation of our soul from our bodies. Our bodies will die because of sickness, old age, decay, but our souls will continue to live.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also says that at the moment of death, all will receive their particular (or individual) judgment (#1021, 1051). The time for choosing God or evil is done:
“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)
St. Paul tells the Corinthians that we must all be judged by Christ, “so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
At the particular judgment, we will see our lives; we will see ourselves as God sees us, and then we will proceed to our place of reward – Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell – to wait for the universal judgment, which will take place after the resurrection of the body (CCC #1038), but before the Second Coming of Christ.
The universal judgment, often called the Last Judgment, takes place when Christ returns in glory (CCC #1040) and reveals “even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his or her earthly life” (CCC #1039).  At this point, all will be resurrected in body. Those in Purgatory will already be purged, and so, following the Final Judgement, they will proceed to Heaven. If some are still alive at this time, they will skip their particular judgment. “After the universal judgment, the righteous will reign for ever with Christ, glorified in body and soul” (CCC #1042). Not only do we believe that we will be glorified, but the whole cosmos, the universe itself, will be transformed (CCC #1042-1047).
Even though Purgatory is not one of the Four Last Things (because after the universal judgment, Purgatory will no longer exist), I’d like to say a few things about this state, since the Catechism dedicates a section to it (#1030-32):
If we die in God’s grace and friendship but still have the need to be purified (due to temporal punishment*), we will go into a “place” of purification. Those who are in Purgatory are on their way to Heaven. Purgatory is not a place where the decision to go to Heaven or Hell is made. Purgatory is sort of like entering Heaven through the laundry room. We also do not believe that anyone will stay in Purgatory for eternity, for after the Final Judgement, as I wrote above, there will be no need for Purgatory. (*You can read more on this in Deacon-structing Indulgences.)
Hell is what we refer to when we speak of “eternal death”. This is where we do not want to go. It is not a physical place but a state. If we die in a state of mortal sin – that is, in a state that is not in God’s grace and friendship – we cannot be united to God if we don’t freely choose to love Him (CCC #1033, 1057). If the consequences of our sins are not temporal but eternal, we will go to a place that is eternally separated from God.
“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.” (CCC #1035)
The Church does not teach that “God banishes people to Hell”, rather that people willfully choose Hell. Which is why some (including myself) can wonder how, when presented with the glory and magnificent mercy and love of God, anyone would choose against it. Still, we have to believe that this is an option. But this is why we also believe that we can't say for certain that anyone is in Hell, nor, in the same way, can we say for certain that no one is in Hell.
This is where we belong and where we want to go. This is Plan A. I don’t think it needs much explanation:
“Those who die in God's grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live forever with Christ. They are like God for ever, for they 'see him as he is,' face to face.” (CCC #1023)
You can go straight to Heaven or get there via Purgatory.
And as I wrote above, we don’t just believe in Heaven, but we also believe in a “new Heaven” which will come after Christ comes again in glory. The whole of creation will be transformed.
“In this new universe, the heavenly Jerusalem, God will have his dwelling among men. 'He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.'” (CCC #1044)
“At the end of time, the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. Then the just will reign with Christ forever, glorified in body and soul, and the material universe itself will be transformed. God will then be 'all in all' (1 Corinthians 15:28), in eternal life.” (CCC #1060)
It's not a bad idea to reflect on the Last Things and to remember our death. Thinking of these things is part of thinking and hoping to be with God eternally one day since that is where we belong, and thinking about it will help us get there.
Hope to see you there!

pedroEvery week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: [email protected]. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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