Most people have an instinctive fear of death, but many also have a conviction that something lies beyond, that death does not have the last word. The Catholic faith is rooted in the belief that God made us to enjoy eternal life with him.
There is a natural longing in the human heart for peace, friendship, love and happiness – for a life that is purposeful and worthwhile. And there is an even deeper longing, sometimes quiet or hidden. This longing is to discover the ultimate meaning of life, to know the love of God, and to share in a destiny beyond the horizon of death.
As St Augustine of Hippo, one of the great teachers of the Church, wrote: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
The Christian understanding of death is inseparable from the Christian understanding of life. It’s worth summarising some of these key Christian beliefs.
In God’s plan, human beings were created for holiness and eternal life with him. But through the original sin of our first parents, our nature has been wounded, and we experience suffering and death. This was not part of God’s original plan, but it is part of the reality of our lives now.
On the one hand, in purely natural terms, death is a frightening mystery. We are stripped of all our attachments to this world; our body lies corrupt; and our immortal soul goes to meet the Lord. We will see the whole truth of our lives, and we will face God’s judgment.
On the other hand, Christians who have faith can approach death with peace and trust. There is a longing to be ‘at home’ with the Lord.
They have the hope of eternal life and the knowledge that Christ has already conquered death by dying on the cross. And rising from the dead and opening the gates of heaven for those who believe in him.
Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No-one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
When we die, those who believe in Christ, those who freely choose to accept the mercy and salvation he offers, will enter heaven. However, some of these (“the Faithful Departed”) will first need to pass through the purification of purgatory, helped by the prayers of the Church.
People in purgatory are already with God, yet they need our prayers to help them to be purified of all the effects of sin and ready to see God face-to-face.
Those who reject Christ, who freely choose to turn away from the mercy and salvation he offers, will be condemned by their own actions and choices. They have irrevocably turned away from the possibility of life with God. This is the tragedy of hell.
But this does not mean that those who have not known Christ in this life are simply excluded from the salvation he brings. The Bible says that God “desires all people to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4).
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ or his Church, have the hope of attaining salvation, if they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will as far as they know it. This salvation will still be through the redeeming love of Jesus Christ, but in ways perhaps unknown to us.
At the end of time, when Christ comes again, our bodies will share in the Resurrection. God will reveal the hidden purposes of his creation, and reconcile all things in Christ.
Those justified by Christ will live in the presence of God for all eternity. The hope of heaven gives us joy even in the sufferings of this life, and gives us reason to keep close to Christ through lives of faith and love.
At the end of life, in sickness or old age, we prepare for death through prayer, acts of love, the Sacraments of Penance (Confession) and the Anointing of the Sick, together with Holy Communion.
In this way, we are assured of God’s mercy and supported by the prayers of the Church. The hope of every Christian is to die in a state of grace, reconciled with God and at peace with others.
The final goal of our lives is to see God face to face in heaven, to be wrapped up in his joy and love and happiness forever in the company of all the angels and saints.
The angels and saints in heaven are involved in God’s work. We ask them to pray for us and help us, because death is not a barrier but a bridge for those who love one another in Christ. And we pray for the holy souls in purgatory.
It is such a consolation to know that we are spiritually united, even now, with those who have died, and that we have the hope of seeing them again in heaven when we die ourselves.
Read more about prayers and reflections.
Jesus once said to his friend Martha:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26).