Why Is Our Eternal Destiny Determined by Our State at the Moment of Death?
How being-in-time, God's mercy, and the opportunity of a final and (at last!) total gift of oneself work together
For a thousand years now—ever since St. Odilo of Cluny (c. 962–1049) introduced the custom of All Souls’ Day at the great monastery of Cluny, whence it quickly spread—the Latin Church has chosen this day to remember and pray for the Christian souls that have “gone before us with the sign of faith,” for whom we implore “a place of refreshment, light, and peace” (as the Roman Canon says). We remember specifically the baptized, that is, the faithful: that is why we pray “may the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.”1 In other words, we’re praying for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, who have entered into eternal life—they know they are saved and will see God face to face—but are still paying the debt of temporal punishment for their already-forgiven sins.
But it is no accident that we are also meant to think about our own death. The Church makes sure that death is in front of our eyes from time to time, and November 2nd is one of those days. Making use of every medium at hand, the Church once devoted a great deal of attention to the theme of memento mori (remember your death) in sculptures and paintings. Modern Western churches built for comfortable suburbanites have almost completely moved away from this theme, to the point where it would seem downright bizarre to Americans to see the bones of a martyr beneath an altar or to see images of skeletons or grim reapers. To my mind, this shift in consciousness goes hand-in-hand with the changes to the Requiem Mass, about which I have written elsewhere.2
In the cathedral of Segovia, Spain, an allegorical painting by Ignacio de Ries (c. 1612–after 1661)3 stands in a prominent place, ready to greet all who walk through the church:
At the top of the painting we find the following rhyme:
Mira que te mira Dios
Mira que te está mirando
Mira que te as de morir
Mira que no sabes cuándo.
This could be translated:
Know that God sees you.
Be aware, God is watching you.
Know that You are going to die.
Be aware: you do not know when.
Or, it could be understood in reference to the painting:
Look (at Jesus in the painting), He sees you.
Look (at Jesus), He is watching you.
Look (at death), you are going to die.
Look (at the trunk of the tree), you do not know when.
People struggle with many teachings of the Church: this we know. One such teaching is that our eternal destiny is determined by the state of our soul at the moment of death. “Do you mean, I could have loved God all my life, always gone to Church, tithed, been faithful in marriage, and the rest, and then I indulged in one terribly wicked thought the day before I died, didn’t repent of it, and now my whole life’s effort was wasted?” Such an objection is easy to understand.
The first thing we must say is that the scenario just presented isn’t very convincing. A man who loves God all his life is not likely to indulge in terribly wicked thoughts. Such thoughts are the result of a habit, not of a sudden weird blip in free will. The power of free will runs along certain channels that we develop through repeated actions. Everyone can be surprised by the curve ball of a perverse thought or desire, but we recognize it as a curve ball, as something perverse, and we regret it. If our hypothetical lover of God freely embraced a wicked thought, he is very likely to recognize it as wicked and repent of it moments later. At least, that’s how it is in my experience and in that of everyone I know.
Moreover, big sins come from little sins often repeated until they grow. If our hypothetical man was as virtuous as he has been presented, it’s hard to see where the mortally wicked (not venially irritable or unfair) thought would come from. A virtuous life precisely makes mortal sinning more difficult, although we will never cease to be dogged by venial sins: “The just man falls seven times a day” (Prov 24:16).
Lastly, the way the objection is put sounds rather Pelagian: “my whole life’s effort.” If the grace of God has been present and fruitful in us, then it is He who is preparing our souls for the last moment, for a surrender to Him in faith and love. He is the only one who can save us, and He is saving us as long as we abide in Him, in His grace—as also when we turn to Him after falling, again by His grace. If a man were to think and live as if salvation depended on his own efforts, the “checking of boxes,” he would not be a practicing Christian at all, and it would not be surprising if, confronted by death, his defenses failed and his interior misery was exposed. Salvation would, of course, still be possible for this poor man even at his last breath, and a deathbed conversion from Pelagianism—as from any other moral perversion—is entirely possible and has undoubtedly happened more often than we might think.
If it were not our state at the moment of death that determines our eternal destiny, what would it be? Some other time in life, prior to the end, and potentially different from it? But then our destiny would be based on what we were, what we had been, not what we actually are right now. Our existence is most properly in the present moment: that is where you are, where I am. Yes, our entire past accumulates and culminates in this moment, but the moment is not reducible to a sum-total of the vectors of the past; that would be a deterministic way of thinking, which would undermine thought and choice as such. God meets me in the present, not in the past or in the future. It is in the present that I must be ready to meet Him, not in the past or in the future.4
Or what if we knew that God would alert us just a short time before we were going to die, so that we could repent? Would we not be very tempted to start living carelessly, with the excuse that “when I have to change, God’ll let me know”? Okay: so let’s assume you lead a riotous life, and one fine day, God taps you on the shoulder and says: “Tomorrow I’m coming for you.” Do you honestly think you will be able to turn around a bad life of bad habits so quickly? Can you be ready to meet Him in time? Or will you still be twisted in character, regardless of the forewarning?
It’s as simple as this: If death did not come like a thief in the night, and if our afterlife did not depend on our state of sanctity at the hour of death, we would have no compelling “extrinsic” reason to strive to lead a holy life at every moment of our pilgrimage; we might grow lazy and contemptuous; in fact, we’d be at far greater risk of damnation than believers are now, who “know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt 25:13).5
Nota bene: I say “extrinsic” reason, because I do believe, and have to some extent experienced, that as one lives the Christian life—as one strives to imitate Christ (1 Thess 1:6), follow Him (Mt 16:24), put on His mind (Phil 2:5)—one discovers more and more internal motivation for cleaving to the Lord; and even as perfect love casts out fear (1 Jn 4:18), so does affectionate attachment to Christ dominate over the self-interested awareness that, being in constant danger of death, we must watch over our spiritual state lest we be castaways (1 Cor 9:27). But it is clear that various motivations can be simultaneously intertwined, even as we love God for His own goodness and love Him because He is our happiness: there is no contradiction. I am reminded of the words of St. Benedict in his Rule:
And all those precepts which formerly he [the monk] had not observed without fear, he will now begin to keep by reason of that [perfected] love, without any effort, as though naturally and by habit. No longer will his motive be the fear of hell, but rather the love of Christ, good habit, and delight in the virtues which the Lord will deign to show forth by the Holy Spirit in His servant now cleansed from vice and sin. (ch. 7)
That’s a lofty goal, but it is one toward which we should all be hastening. Our baptism sets us on the path of perfection, and never is it truer to say (if I might quote the quotable Lao Tzu) that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The twist is that at any moment God can take us to Himself, since it is not fundamentally about our walking but about His mercy—as long as we are walking toward Him and not refusing to do so, or walking away in the opposite direction. His single step is as good as our thousand miles.
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In reality, the teaching of the Church makes perfect sense. As we live, so shall we die; and the way we die shows how we have lived, what we have lived for, in what we have believed, where we placed our hope, whom we loved the most. Fr. Jürgen Wegner puts in this way: “The last moments of human life are crucial to one’s eternity and define the entire life on earth.”6 I find this formulation telling: a “definition” is a kind of boundary, marking out what a thing is and separating it off from other things. So our dying and our death, in addition to being a boundary between this world and the world to come, mark out what we are and how we differ either from unbelievers who have no faith, hope, and charity, or from believers who have them and use them.
As Fr. Pierre Buron says: “Life serves as a preparation for death. We are [always] in the antechamber of eternity.”7 It is very difficult for us to bear this in mind, since each day we have seems like it will be followed by another just like it; our earthbound vision sees no further than our eyesight, and we are tempted to follow the advice “eat, drink, and be merry” (with or without its accompanying “for tomorrow we die”: see Is 22:33; 1 Cor 15:32; Is 22:33). The early Christian text, the Didache, echoes the language of the Gospels in urging vigilance:
Be watchful over your life; never let your lamps go out or your loins be ungirt, but keep yourselves always in readiness, for you can never be sure of the hour when our Lord may be coming. Come often together for spiritual improvement; because all the past years of your faith will be no good to you at the end, unless you have made yourselves perfect. (no. 16)
Dom Paul Delatte writes in his Commentary on the Holy Rule:
Since God agrees to wait, our life on this earth has the character of a truce, of a delay; the duration of our life is a space of leisure contrived for us by God that we may at last amend…. He has no interest in our failure or damnation, and He desires our welfare more ardently than we do ourselves. Is it not then to be ignorant of the very meaning of life, if we spend it in endless delays, delays the more dangerous because the thread of life may be snapped suddenly? (p. 17)
Fr. Regis de Cacqueray explains:
We human beings are composed of body and soul. We are on earth for a short time only, a few decades on average. At the moment of death, the soul and the body separate. The spiritual and immortal soul will then be judged by God according to its state at that moment. It will be thrown into Hell forever if it is not in the grace of God. It will be sent for a time to Purgatory if, [being] in a state of grace, there remain nonetheless venial sins or a debt to pay, and it will go directly to Heaven to be face-to-face with the beatific vision for all eternity if it is entirely cleansed of all stain and debt due to sin.
We will not be judged on the entirety of our life. Our sentence to Hell or our immediate or delayed admission to Paradise will depend on the state of our soul at the moment of judgment. It is sovereignly just and wise that God should judge us based on a given moment because He always offers us His precious help that we may never leave the state of grace. It is therefore just that He should be able to ask us to account for our soul at any moment.
The sentence “we will not be judged on the entirety of our life” leaps out to me. It would obviously be false to suggest that nothing we have done prior to the last moment will be of any significance in our judgment. For example, a Christian mother who welcomed many children into the world has that many more good fruits of loving sacrifice to show the Lord; and an abortionist who killed many children has more evil to answer for.
What Fr. de Cacqueray is saying is that our ultimate destiny of light or darkness, bliss or banishment, is not based on a sort of celestial calculus or divine database of the good and evil things we have done, but on whether or not our soul is inhabited by light or darkness, by the Spirit of God or the spirit of the world. The reward or punishment will take our entire life into account, for God is just, and all must be accounted for; but think of the immense mercy He shows to the sinner! Rather than expelling him from heaven for (let’s say) a long life away from God, a huge number of mortal sins, He welcomes him to the heavenly banquet because the sinner repented, having died with his will fixed on God. It is hard for me to put it into words but this realization strikes me as a great mercy: I am not being, as it were, constantly graded on a lifelong report card, the GPA of which will determine the reward, but rather, I am being prepared, little by little, for the final entrance exam, on which there is only one question, which depends not on knowledge but on will: “Do you love me?” That is what our life has been preparing us to answer.
And that is why Little Thérèse could say on her deathbed: “I am not dying, I am entering life.”
I shall conclude with words written by a dear friend of mine in a meditation on death:
The best thing in life is giving yourself away, and the good news of Jesus Christ is that death has become a way of giving. There just isn’t any other way of giving yourself that is as total as death. So I have made a habit of frequently offering to God my future death, in whatever form he will send it. I offer it for my wife, and for my children, and for my friends, and for whatever else he wants me to do. Try it. That prayer will put your whole day in perspective.
May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen. And may we stay close to Him that we may rest in Him.
Incidentally, I have noticed that many Catholics, especially younger ones, think that the prayer is “may the souls of the faithfully departed.” But that is not what the Latin says (fidelium animae: the faithful [ones] departed), and besides, it doesn’t make much sense.
In that sense may be taken the famous words of Gandalf: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
It has always struck me as a sign of the great wisdom of Holy Mother Church that the traditional liturgy reads this Gospel pericope (Mt 25:1–13), the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, so many times during the course of the year—for most of the feasts of Virgins on the calendar. For those who attend Mass regularly, the final verse, “Watch ye therefore, because you know not the day nor the hour,” is imprinted on the memory.
Angelus 38.6 (Nov-Dec 2015), 4.
Angelus 38.6 (Nov-Dec 2015), 23.