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Eschatology or the Catholic Doctrine of the Last Things
A Dogmatic Treatise
Rev. Joseph Pohle Ph.D. D.D

1. DEFINITION OF DEATH.—“Death,” in common as well as Scriptural usage, means the cessation of life.

a) There is a threefold life (physical, spiritual, and eternal), and hence there must be a threefold death.

(1) Physical death consists in the separation of the body from the soul;

(2) Spiritual death is the loss of sanctifying grace, caused by original or mortal sin;

(3) “Eternal death” is a synonym for damnation. St. John calls damnation “the second death;” St. Paul, “eternal punishment,” “corruption,” “destruction.”

St. Augustine says: “Though Holy Scripture mentions many deaths, there are two principal ones, namely, the death which the first man [Adam] incurred by sin, and that which the second man [Christ] will inflict in the judgment.” Here bodily death and the loss of sanctifying grace are comprised under one term, as an effect of original sin. Of course, the loss of sanctifying grace and eternal damnation can be called “death” only in a figurative sense.

b) Literally death means the cessation of bodily life, caused by the separation of the soul from the body. It is principally in this sense that Eschatology is concerned with death.

The Biblical names for death are as various as they are significant. Some are derived from the symptoms that attend the separation of the soul from the body; e. g. “dissolution,” “end,” “outcome,” “return to the earth,” etc. Others point to original sin as the cause of death; for instance, “work of the devil,” “the enemy,” “what God hath not made,” etc. Belief in immortality is more or less evident from such phrases as “sleep,” stripping off the earthly house of habitation, the “laying away of this tabernacle,” going to the fathers, resting from labor, the return of the spirit to God. The latter class of appellations is by far the most important, since it presupposes belief in the immortality of the soul. While the body decays or returns to the dust from which it was formed, the soul lives on for ever. Its separation from the body is merely temporary: at the general Resurrection the two will be reunited.

The state of the soul after its separation from, and until its reunion with, the body must not be conceived as an unconscious dream or a sort of semi-conscious “soul-sleep” (hypnopsychy, psychopannychy), but as a purely spiritual life, accompanied by full consciousness and determined as to happiness or unhappiness by the result of the particular judgment held immediately after death.

2. THE DOGMATIC TEACHING OF THE CHURCH.—Divine Revelation teaches that:

(1) Death is universal;

(2) It is a result of sin; and

(3) It ends the state of probation.

Thesis I: Death is universal

This proposition embodies the common teaching of Catholic theologians.

Proof. That death is universal we know from experience. Furthermore reason tells us that it is natural for man to be separated into his constituent elements, body and soul.

a) Physiology teaches that every body contains within itself the germs of dissolution and hence is doomed to die. When death comes as the result of old age, it is called “natural” or “physiological.” Sacred Scripture expresses a fact of ordinary and universal experience when it calls death “the way of all the earth” and teaches that “It is appointed unto men once to die.” Not even Christ and His Immaculate Mother were exempt from death.

b) Certain exceptional cases reported in Sacred Scripture give rise to the question whether the universality of death is metaphysical or merely moral, in other words, whether all men must die, or whether some escape the ordinary fate of mankind.

α) Thus we are told that Henoch, the father of Mathusala, “was translated, that he should not see death;” he “walked with God, and was seen no more, because God took him.”

Of Elias the prophet we read that, as he and his friend Eliseus were walking and talking together, “a fiery chariot and fiery horses parted them both asunder, and Elias went up by a whirlwind into heaven.”

It seems certain that these two men are, as St. Augustine puts it, still “living in the same bodies in which they were born.” But there is no reason to suppose that they will escape the law of death. Since Tertullian’s time it has been a pious belief among Christians that Enoch and Elias are the two witnesses mentioned in the Apocalypse, that they will reappear at the end of the world to preach penance and finally be “overcome by the beast,” i. e. die as martyrs to the faith.

β) Concerning the just who will survive on earth at the second coming of our Lord, St. Paul teaches: “Behold I tell you a mystery: we shall not all fall asleep, but we shall all be changed.” The Vulgate renders this passage differently: “We shall all rise again, but we shall not all be changed.” But the Greek text has in its favor the famous Vatican codex, most of the uncial and practically all the cursive manuscripts and vernacular versions. Besides, the reading we have adopted is demanded by the context. “In the previous verse,” says Father Lattey, “St. Paul lays it down that the body in its present perishable condition cannot enter heaven. At once the difficulty arises about the just who are alive at the last day. St. Paul meets it by telling of a ‘mystery’; these just, it is true, will not die, but none the less their bodies will have to be glorified—all the just, living or dead, will be changed. When the dead rise incorruptible, we, the living, shall be changed; our corruptible bodies will put on incorruption. After that supreme moment, death will have lost all power over man; human bodies will be perishable no more.”

This plausible interpretation is confirmed by the following passage in Saint Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians: “For this we tell you as the Lord’s word, that we who live, who survive until the Lord’s coming, shall not precede them that are fallen asleep (dormierunt), … and the dead in Christ shall rise first (primi, πρῶτον). Thereupon (deinde) we the living, who remain, shall together with them be caught up (simul rapiemur cum illis) in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall be ever with the Lord.”

It is but fair to add, however, that these two Pauline texts have been variously interpreted. St. Chrysostom, St. Jerome, and apparently also Tertullian, taught that the just who survive on the last day shall be glorified without having died. St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and others held that they shall die and slumber a while before being summoned to the Last Judgment. The majority of Catholic divines, in view of St. Paul’s teaching that all who have sinned in Adam must die, prefer to steer a middle course. They hold that while all men must die, some will survive until immediately before the General Judgment. This teaching is favored by the Roman Catechism and many modern exegetes.

c) Whichever opinion one may prefer in regard to the question here at issue, it is certain that even if Henoch and Elias did not and never will die, the debt of death (debitum mortis) rests upon all the descendants of Adam. “It is held with greater probability and more commonly,” says St. Thomas, “that all those who are alive at the coming of our Lord, will die and rise again after a short while.… If, however, it be true, as others hold, that they will never die, … then we must say … that although they are not to die, the debt of death is none the less in them, and that the punishment of death will be remitted by God, since He can also forgive the punishment due for actual sins.” The only human beings exempt from this law are Jesus Christ and His Blessed Mother, though they, too, actually paid tribute to death.

Thesis II: Death in the present economy is a punishment for sin

This proposition embodies an article of faith.

Proof. It is the dogmatically defined teaching of the Church that our first parents were endowed with bodily immortality, but lost this prerogative for themselves and their descendants through sin.

God solemnly forbade Adam and Eve to eat of the fruit of a certain tree. “In what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death.” By transgressing this command our first parents incurred death. Thus, in the words of the Apostle, “by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned.” Therefore, “the wages of sin is death.”

Long before St. Augustine, as the latter assured Julian, the Fathers considered the causal connection between sin and death to be an article of faith.

The atonement wiped out sin and thereby enabled man to escape the “second death,” i. e. eternal damnation. But the gift of bodily immortality was not restored. It is true, death loses the character of a punishment through Baptism, because, in the words of the Tridentine Fathers, “there is no condemnation to those who are truly buried together with Christ by Baptism into death.” But the debitum mortis remains as an effect of sin (poenalitas), which God wisely allows for the purification of the just. Only in the case of Christ and His Blessed Mother death was neither a punishment (poena) nor an effect of sin (poenalitas).

Thesis III: Death ends the state of probation, that is, after death man can no longer either merit or demerit

This thesis embodies what is technically called “doctrina catholica.”

Proof. Death ends the state of pilgrimage (status viae) and inaugurates the state of final consummation (status termini), which by its very definition excludes the possibility of further merit or demerit. It is true we cannot prove that this must necessarily be so; but we know it is so by virtue of a positive divine law.

The impossibility of acquiring merits after death must not, however, be conceived as a cessation of free will. At their entrance into the status termini the Elect as well as the damned once for all decide either for or against God; but within the state thus definitively chosen, each retains full liberty of action.

a) As Christ ceased to acquire merits after His death, so a fortiori will man. Death inaugurates “the night when no man can work.” Ecclesiastes compares man in this respect with a tree: “If the tree fall to the south, or to the north, in what place soever it shall fall, there shall it be.” St. Paul says every man will be judged according as he hath done good or evil “in the body.” St. Cyprian teaches that no one can do penance or make satisfaction after death. St. Augustine declares: “It is in this life that all merit or demerit is acquired.… No one, then, need hope that he shall obtain after death that which he has neglected to secure here.” The Catholic Church has embodied this revealed doctrine in her dogma of the Particular Judgment.

b) It is the opinion of St. Bonaventure, Ripalda, and Vasquez that the Elect in Heaven and the poor souls in Purgatory can merit and apply for the benefit of others certain praemia accidentalia. But this assumption is opposed to the analogy of faith. The power of intercession which the just wield in the world beyond is based entirely upon merits previously acquired in the state of pilgrimage.

Hirscher’s view that those who, after wavering a long time between God and the world, finally die in the state of mortal sin, will be allowed to make their final decision in the next world, is contrary to the dogmatic teaching of the Church.

c) From what we have said it follows that nothing is so well calculated to demonstrate the hollowness of the world and to preserve us from becoming unduly attached to it, as the pious consideration of death. Our earthly life is merely a “pilgrimage,” a “journey,” and we are to make use of the things of this world only in so far as they aid, or at least do not hinder us in attaining our supernatural destiny. There is much in the thought of death to comfort us. Death ends all our sufferings and trials. But the hour when we shall be called hence is uncertain, and therefore we must watch and pray and strive always to be in the state of sanctifying grace. Mortal sin is the only thing that can prevent us from attaining our last end, which is the beatific vision of God. If we are in the state of grace, we can face death unflinchingly. That the fear of death is so deeply ingrained in human nature, is owing partly to sin and partly to the instinct of self-preservation. The immortality which our first parents enjoyed in Paradise was a free gift and its loss is a punishment. Death and the fear of death are entirely natural. Nevertheless, the thought of death should not discourage, but rather incite us to spend the short span of existence granted us here below for the benefit of our own souls and those near and dear to us. We must not, because life is short, seek sinful pleasures after the example of the ancient pagans, who had no hope of Heaven. On the other hand, we should not despise the things of this world. It would be folly to neglect our earthly affairs in order to devote all our time to works of piety. Every loyal Catholic should, on the contrary, do his share in advancing the interests of true progress and culture and thereby help to disprove the oft-repeated calumny that the Church is inimical to the world. The more we accomplish in this world, if we have the right intention, the more confidently may we meet death. Ora et labora!

READINGS:—Ginella, De Notione atque Origine Mortis, Breslau 1868.—Card. Bellarmine, De Arte bene Moriendi, 1620 (German tr., Die Kunst zu sterben, by F. Hense, 2nd ed., Paderborn 1888).—C. M. Kaufmann, Die Jenseitshoffnungen der Griechen und Römer nach den Sepulkralinschriften, Freiburg 1899.—IDEM, Die sepulkralen Jenseitsdenkmäler der Antike und des Urchristentums, Mayence 1900.—S. J. Hunter, S. J., Outlines of Dogmatic Theology, Vol. III, pp. 425–429.—R. W. Mackenna, The Adventure of Death, New York 1917.

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