This is the second in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
For us faithful, the day we die is the greatest day of our life on this earth. Even if some final purification awaits us, the beatific vision for which we long lies just ahead; our exile in this valley of tears is ended.
Is calling the day we die the greatest day of our life too strong a statement? I have seen some fellow Christians wince at it. In this age of emphasis on worldly comforts, medicine, and the secular, we rarely speak of Heaven—or Hell for that matter. I wonder if we have lost some of our longing for Heaven and cling too strongly to the trinkets of this life.
At the funeral of a relative several years ago, I was approached by a friend of the family. She was an unbeliever, a self-described secular humanist, and she made the following comment to me: “Perhaps there is Heaven for the faithful who believe that there is life after death, and perhaps for them the day they die is the greatest day of their life, but I do not observe that Christians live as if they believe this. It seems to me that they are as anxious as anyone else about dying and earnestly seek to avoid death just as much as anyone else.”
It was a very interesting observation, one that I found mildly embarrassing. I quickly thought of some legitimate explanations and proposed them to her, but the embarrassment remained. We Christians sometimes fail to give witness to our most fundamental values. Based on her remark—and I’ve heard it before—most of us don’t manifest a very ardent longing for Heaven.
There are, of course, some legitimate and understandable reasons that we do not rush towards death:
- There is a natural fear of dying. It is part of our physical makeup and, it would seem, hard-wired into our psyche as well. Every sentient being on this planet, man or animal, has a strong instinct for survival. Without this instinct, strongly tied to both hunger and sexual desire, we might die not only as individuals but as a species. It also drives us to look to the future, as we work to ensure the survival, even thriving, of our children and those who will come after us. It is a basic human instinct that we ought not to expect to disappear because it has necessary and useful aspects.
- We would like to finish certain important things before we die. It makes sense, for example, that parents would like to see their children well into adulthood. Parents rightly view their existence in this world as critical to their children. Hence, we cling to our life here not just for our own sake but because others depend upon us.
- The Christian is called to love life at every stage. Most of us realize that we are called to love and appreciate what we have here, for it is the gift of God. To so utterly despise this world that we wish only to leave it manifests a strange sort of ingratitude. It also shows a lack of understanding that life here prepares us for the fuller life that is to come. I remember that at a low point in my own life, afflicted with anxiety and depression, I asked the Lord to please end my life quickly and take me home out of this misery. Without hearing words, I felt the Lord’s silent rebuke: “Until you learn to love the life you have now, you will not love eternal life. If you can’t learn to appreciate the glory of the gifts of this life, then you will not and cannot embrace the fullness of eternal life.” Indeed, I was seeing eternal life merely in terms of relief or escape from this life, rather than as the full blossoming of a life that has been healed and made whole. We don’t embrace life by trying to escape from it. A healthy Christian attitude is to love life as we have it now, even as we yearn and strive for a life that we do not yet fully comprehend: a life that eye has not seen nor ear heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him.
- We seek to set our life in order before facing judgment. While it is true that we can procrastinate, there is a proper sense of wanting time to make amends and to prepare to meet God.
- We fear the experience of dying. Dying is something none of us has ever done before and we have a natural fear of the unknown. Further, most of us realize that the dying process likely involves some degree of pain. Instinctively and understandably, we draw back from such things.
Even Jesus, in His human nature, recoiled at the thought of the agony before Him—so much so that He sweat blood and asked that the cup of suffering be taken from Him if possible. Manfully, though, He embraced His Father’s will, and our benefit rather than His own. Still, in His humanity, He did recoil at the suffering soon to befall Him.
Despite this hesitancy to meet death, the day we die is indeed the greatest day of our life. While we ought to regard the day of our judgment with sober reverence, we should go with joyful hope to the Lord, who loves us and for whom we have longed. That day of judgment, awesome though it is, will for the future saint disclose only that which needs final healing in purgation, not that which merits damnation.
We don’t hear much longing for our last day on this earth or for God and Heaven. Instead, we hear fretting about how we’re getting older. We’re anxious about our health, even the natural effects of aging. And there are such grim looks as death approaches! Where is the joy one might expect? Does our faith really make a difference for us or are we like those who have no hope? Older prayers referred to life in this world as an exile and expressed a longing for God and Heaven, but few of today’s prayers or sermons speak this way.
Here are some of the not-so-legitimate reasons that we may draw back from dying:
- Our life in this world is comfortable. While comfort is not the same as happiness, it is very appealing. It is also deceiving, seductive, and addictive. It is deceiving because it tends to make us think that this world can be our paradise. It is seductive because it draws our focus away from the God of comforts to the comforts of God. We would rather have the gift than the Giver. It is addictive because we can’t ever seem to get enough of it; we seem to spend our whole life working toward gaining more and more comforts. We become preoccupied by achieving rather than working toward our truest happiness, which is to be with God in Heaven.
- We are worldly. Comfort leads to worldliness. Here, worldliness means focusing on making the world more comfortable while allowing notions of God and Heaven to recede into the background. Even the so-called spiritual life of many Christians is almost wholly devoted to prayers asking to make this world a better place: Improve my health; fix my finances; grant me that promotion. While it is not wrong to pray about such things, the cumulative effect, combined with our silence on more spiritual and eternal things, gives the impression that we are saying to God, “Make this world a better place and I’ll just be happy to stay here forever.” What a total loss! This world is not the point. It is not the goal; Heaven is. Being with God forever is the goal.
- Being with God seems abstract and less desirable than our life in this world. With this magnificent comfort that leads to worldly preoccupation, longing for Heaven and being with God recedes into the background of our thoughts. Few speak of Heaven or even long for it inwardly. They’d rather have that new cell phone or the cable upgrade with the enhanced sports package. Some say that they never hear about Hell in sermons, and in many parishes (though not in mine) that is regrettably the case. They almost never hear about Heaven, either (except in some cheesy funeral moments that miss the target altogether and make Heaven seem trivial rather than a glorious gift to be sought). Heaven just isn’t on most people’s radar except as a vague abstraction for some far-off time—certainly not now.
This perfect storm of comfort and worldliness leads to slothful aversion to heavenly gifts. That may be why, when I say that the day we die is the greatest day of our life, or that I’m glad to be getting older because I’m getting closer to the time when I can go home to God, or that I can’t wait to meet Him, people look at me strangely and seem to wonder whether I need therapy.
No, I don’t need therapy—at least not for this. I’m simply verbalizing the ultimate longing of every human heart. Addiction to comfort has deceived and seduced us such that we are no longer in touch with our heart’s greatest longing; we cling to passing things. I would argue (as did my family friend) that we seem little different from those who have no hope. We no longer witness to a joyful journey to God that says, “I’m closer to home. Soon and very soon I am going to see the King. Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world. I’m going home to be with God!”
There are legitimate, understandable reasons for being averse to dying, but how about even a glimmer of excitement from the faithful as we see that our journey is coming to an end? St. Paul wrote the following to the Thessalonians regarding death: We do not want you to be like those who have no hope (1 Thess 4:13). Do we witness to the glory of going to be with God or not? On the whole, it would seem that we do not.
The video below features a rendition of the hymn “For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest.” Here is a brief passage from the lyrics:
The golden evening brightens in the West,
Soon, soon, to faithful warriors cometh rest.
Sweet is the calm of Paradise most blest. Alleluia!