Death and the Particular Judgment
Index The Catholic Faith
Return To Level Four Topic Index
"Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you will return."
These words are said each year on Ash Wednesday to remind us of our mortality. Each of us will eventually die. This is one of the consequences for all living, material creatures. Plants and animals eventually die; even inanimate, non-living, objects do not last forever. Human beings, since we are mortal, must eventually die, a result of original sin.
Although the separation of body and soul - death - is inevitable, we know that there is life beyond the grave. Human beings have a mortal body but an immortal soul. Because of this we see that death is not really the end of life but only the end of this life. In the Preface used at Masses for the dead we are reminded that for the Christian "life is not ended but merely changed".
Our faith tells us that death is the gateway to life with God. In the Gospel, Martha, the sister of Lazarus, showed us how Christians ought to understand death. When Our Lord came to Bethany after Lazarus' death, Martha said to Him: "I know that (my brother) will rise again in the resurrection on the last day" (Jn 11:24).
Since death will come for each of us, what should be our attitude toward it? Our Lord tells us that we should prepare ourselves for death. We should remember the parable about the servants who are awaiting their master's return. Since they do not know exactly when he will come, they must prepare themselves. We must also be prepared:
Watch therefore - for (we) do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. . . (Mk 13:35).
How can we prepare ourselves for death? We prepare throughout our lives by growing in faith and love. The best preparation for death is to live according to God's will, developing our spiritual lives through prayer and the sacraments. Whenever we pray the Hail Mary we ask our Mother in Heaven to pray for us "now and at the hour of our death". Following our vocation and generously serving God will prepare us for death and our meeting with Christ. We should pray that we may receive the sacraments before our death. By the sacrament of Anointing, dangerously ill persons are commended to the Lord, that he may support and save them. Hopefully, we will also be able to receive the sacrament of Penance and the Eucharist as Viaticum.
When we die we will meet Our Lord and be judged by him. The particular judgment occurs at the moment of our death and will be based on those things which we did or neglected to do in this life. At this judgment we will see ourselves as we are - our sins and failings, as well as our virtues. We will also see the perfect justice of God's judgment. For this reason it is extremely important to develop the habit of appealing to God's mercy for us sinners. This appeal, made habitually, will bring down his mercy on us and others for that moment when we so critically need it. By remembering what St. Paul said we will prepare for this great moment:
He will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury (Rom 2:6-8).
At the particular judgment those who have died in the state of mortal sin - without repenting - will be separated from God forever. They will suffer eternal punishment because of their own actions and choice. In the parable of the rich man (Dives) and Lazarus, Our Lord reminded us of the permanence of this state (Lk 16:19-31). Once one is in Hell, there is no chance for repentance. While the souls of the damned suffer sensible pain, the greatest suffering in Hell is the loss of God. They will be without hope, knowing that their own rejection of God is the cause of their damnation.
It is good to remember that God does not want anyone to suffer in Hell. In fact, he did not create Hell for man. The angels who rebelled were banished from God's sight and this is Hell. God created man, like the angels, with a free will. Thus, if we should turn away from him, we will join the fallen angels in suffering this eternal punishment.
Some who die are not in the state of mortal sin, but still have venial sins which they have not fully repented of or done adequate penance for. Because these people have not completely separated themselves from God, they will not go to Hell. They will go first to Purgatory. Here they will be prepared for Heaven. The doctrine of Purgatory is very consoling since, because of God's mercy, we can be saved even though we are not perfect. We can go through a time of purification. Even though it is a painful suffering, we are full of hope.
Other people whose love for God is perfect will go straight to Heaven. The reward for the just is eternal life in which they will enjoy the vision of God. This is called the Beatific Vision. In Heaven "we shall see (God) as he is" (1 Jn 3:2). It is this which gives us true happiness. In Heaven, we will know God as completely as we can: Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; than I shall understand fully. . . (1 Cor 13:12). Here we will be able perfectly to love God and others.
We know that Heaven will bring us great joy, and yet it is difficult for us to grasp what it is really like. St. Paul tells us: No eye has seen, nor hear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9). Heaven will be far greater than anything we can imagine. It will encompass all those things which are truly good.
Besides the great joy of the Beatific Vision, there will be other joys in Heaven. In Heaven there will be no sorrow or pain as St. John tells us in the book of Revelation: He will wipe away every tear from their eyes . . . neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more. . . (Rev 21:4). There will also be no more sin or temptation in Heaven. The struggle will be over and peace will remain. We will be united with the angels, the saints, and those we have known and loved on earth.
Since we cannot really understand much of what Heaven is like, we may sometimes be tempted to think that it will be boring. Yet boredom is an imperfection of life on earth and cannot be part of life in Heaven. If boredom is a part of life after death, it is part of life in Hell, not Heaven. Although the many particulars of life in Heaven are unknown, we should remember the words of St. Paul - Heaven is beyond our wildest dreams!
We should begin now by preparing ourselves for the day when Christ will call us to come home and be with him. We want to be able to say the words which St. Paul wrote near the end of his life, in a letter to Timothy:
As for me, my life is already being poured away as a libation, and the time has come for me to be gone. I have fought the good fight to the end: I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith; all there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day; and not only to me but all those who have longed for his appearing (2 Tim 4:6-8).
Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534
Index The Catholic Faith
Return To Level Four Topic Index