Death – What Every Catholic Must Know About “The Four Last Things” (first in a series)

Jerome in Meditation by Caravaggio

Editor’s Note: First in a series on the Four Last Things.

One of the recurring themes you will read on this site is that we are not made for Earth, but for Heaven. We are pilgrims on Earth, journeying to our true home in Heaven. Each of us has a beginning (conceived by our parents) and each of us will have an end. What we will experience and attain as we arrive at this end is the subject of this series.

The Four Last Things

We do not hear much these days about the topic of the Four Last Things and that fact is detrimental to our spiritual life. It is imperative that we spend time frequently pondering, in prayerful meditation, these things that will come to visit each of us. Catholic teaching identifies the Four Last Things as:

  • Death
  • Judgment
  • Heaven
  • Hell

Each of us will arrive at the time when this earthly life will end – that is what we call death. Unless you are alive at Christ’s Second Coming, you will die. Either way, you will then come face to face with your God to be judged and learn if you will spend eternity in Heaven or Hell.

“Just as it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment, so also Christ, offered once to take away the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him” (Hebrews 9:27-28).

The focus of this first installment is death.

Death

So, the first thing that happens to each of us at the end of our earthly life is death. Let’s talk a bit about that. Where does death come from? Death is a result of sin.

“Therefore, just as through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned…” (Romans 5:12).

To fully understand this, we need to go back to the beginning of Creation. Before the Fall of Man, man possessed Sanctifying Grace.  By Sanctifying Grace, God made Adam and Eve partakers in the Divine Life. They were in communion with God.

In addition to Sanctifying Grace, God also bestowed upon Adam and Eve what are called Preternatural Gifts:

  • Infused knowledge
  • Integrity
  • Bodily Immortality

Although we are concerned primarily with bodily immortality for this article, let’s look at each gift.

Infused Knowledge

The infused knowledge given to us by God differs from knowledge we acquire by study and experience. God, Himself, placed certain knowledge within us about:

  • God and all of His attributes,
  • Our relation to God and the moral law
  • The physical universe, its material and spiritual nature and its purpose

This knowledge provided an understanding of why we exist; that is, what we were made for (our supernatural end) – we were made for God and Heaven.

Integrity

Adam and Eve lived without an inclination to sin. The gift of integrity meant that their human passions and appetites did not overcome their human reason and will. They lived in a type of balance or integration that made it possible for them to avoid sin.

Bodily Immortality

Older Catholics in the United States will remember that question in the Baltimore Catechism: “Why did God make you?” The answer given to this profound question is very simple: “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.”

Out of His infinite goodness, God made us in His image and likeness in so that we might share in His happiness and beatitude, in communion with Him, for all eternity in Heaven. What is important to see here is that Adam and Eve, like we are, were pilgrims on this Earth. The Garden of Eden, what we at times refer to as Paradise, was not Heaven. At some point, they were to pass on to the next life in Heaven, but it would not have been through what we call death.

* * * * *

All of this changed when Adam and Eve sinned. The Fall of Man cost them Sanctifying Grace and the three Preternatural Gifts – they lost them utterly and entirely. And since they no longer possessed them, they could no longer pass them on to us through generation. They forfeited not only their possessions, but also our inheritance.

One of these gifts that were lost was bodily immortality – Adam and Eve, and thus each of us, would now face bodily death. This is how death came to us:

“The Lord God gave man this order: ‘You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and bad. From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die’” (Genesis 2:16-17).

Bodily Death Defined

Let’s define bodily death – Death is nothing more than the separation of a person’s human body and human soul. We do not cease to exist at death. We do not become unaware of things at death. The Church does not believe in “soul sleep” as do some non-Catholic Christians. Our bodies, will cease to live as a result of age, sickness or accident, but we will perdure. Life will go on; our souls will continue to be alive, but apart, for a time, from our bodies which will no longer be animated.

With the loss of bodily immortality also comes suffering and illness. So it is now our part in this life to suffer and die.

The First Announcement of the Good News

Although Adam and Eve rejected God by falling to the temptation of the devil (the serpent), God did not reject mankind; He immediately began the work of Salvation. In the third chapter of Genesis, we read the first announcement of the Gospel – what is referred to as the Protoevangelium:

“Then the Lord God said to the serpent: ‘Because you have done this, you shall be banned from all the animals and from all the wild creatures; On your belly shall you crawl, and dirt shall you eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel’” (Genesis 3:14-15).

In this short passage from Genesis, we glimpse the beginnings of God’s work of Redemption to come. All is not lost, even in the face of bodily death and the loss of Grace.


Editor’s Note: In next Sunday’s second Installment of this series, we will look at the Particular and General Judgments.

Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.

He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplains to the St. Peter Chanel Business Association and co-founder of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.

Looking for a Catholic Speaker?  Check out Deacon Mike’s speaker page and the rest of the ICL Speaker’s Bureau.

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About the Author

Deacon Michael Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.

He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplain of the St. Peter Chanel Faith at Work Business Association and co-founder and Chaplain of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.

He and his wife have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

NB: The views I express on this site are my own. I am not an official spokesman for either my parish or diocese.

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7 Comments

  1. “We are pilgrims on Earth, journeying to our true home in Heaven.” I’m not sure where your information comes from; I see several differences between it and the teachings of the Bible.
    Gen 2:7, Douay: “And the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth: and breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” So God’s word says man does not HAVE a soul, he IS a soul. The implication is that the body dies when its life force (spirit, in the Bible) ends or goes out of it. No mention of “immortality”.
    Just the opposite, in fact: According to Paul at Rom 2:7, 1 Cor 15:53,54, 1 Tim 6:16, and 2 Tim 1:10, immortality is to be sought or put on by mortals. In fact, it’s a gift from God as a reward, not possessed automatically from birth. Even Jesus died.
    Your apposite quote from Gen 2:16,17 is an “if-then” statement: if sin, then death. (As in Romans 5 and 6.) Without sin, then, would Adam have died? Without sin, then, would he and his descendants not now be living on a paradise earth? With a paradise earth to “subdue” and every tool provided (Gen 2:28-30), what could heaven have given him? If, as Paul says, there is ‘a human body for earth and a spiritual body for heaven’ (1 Cor 15), how would a sinless Adam- in Heaven- carry out God’s original purpose? (Isa 55:11, ibid: “So shall my word be, which shall go forth from my mouth: it shall not return to me void, but it shall do whatsoever I please, and shall prosper in the things for which I sent it.

  2. Hi Doug,

    My information comes simply from Catholic teaching.

    Man is a complex being that is comprised of body and spirit. His soul is a spiritual soul. Regarding his bodily immortality, it was indeed a gift from God, not due to any powers of his nature, but resulting from the promise of God. As I quoted from Genesis 2:16-17… “The Lord God gave man this order: ‘You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and bad. From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die.’”

    In this passage is the implied promise of bodily immortality. Adam would not have died (body and soul would not have separated) if he had not sinned. As a result of his sin, God pronounced in Genesis 3:19, “By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat, Until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; For you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return.”

    So you can see that there is mention in the bible… a promise that is conditional and the result when the condition was not met.

    You asked what one could want more than paradise on earth… “what could heaven have given him?” Man’s end is not the joys of creation, but rather the absolute joy of the Creator… in the Beatific Vision, perfected communion with God.

    You have made the mistake of confusing the instructions given man for life in this world with the end (purpose) for which man was created which is life in the next and the glory of God.

    Deacon Mike

  3. Mike, “the instructions given man for life in this world” are what I found and cited in Genesis. “The end (purpose) for which man was created which is life in the next” is not stated there, just God’s original purpose: life on paradise earth.
    Heaven is certainly a nice place for spirit creatures, those who were created there or who are put there after their earthly courses (in bodies of flesh) are finished. (Some are no longer there: “And that great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, who seduces the whole world. And he was cast unto the earth: and his angels were thrown down with him.”)
    And my take on Genesis is confirmed by other related scriptures throughout the Bible: Isa 55:11; Ps 115:16 (114/115:24, Douay); Rev 21:3,4 among many. Even Jesus understood this, in quoting his forefather’s prophecy: ‘The meek shall inherit the land’, Ps 37:10, Mt 5:4. Does God say, “(I) did not create (the earth) in vain:” and then have to go back on His word because a mere man disobeyed him? (Isa 45:18)
    Again, what is there not to like about everlasting life in paradise under God’s rulership? Only good things, for which we were made to enjoy. The Bible’s explanation of life and death- two important topics, you’ll agree- has always seemed clear and satisfying to me. Not so “Catholic teaching” or that of the other churches, which are similar. Just “the good news of the Kingdom”.

  4. Doug,

    Okay, so you do not believe that the saved enter Heaven. It is difficult to imagine one who wants the dessert but not the main course!

    Heaven is the state of seeing God as He is. It is enjoying (partaking) in His divine beatitude and essence to the fullest of our capacity. Again, you are confusing what God instructed us to do here in this life with what He plans for us in the life to come.

    You wrote >>The Bible’s explanation of life and death- two important topics, you’ll agree- has always seemed clear and satisfying to me. Not so “Catholic teaching” or that of the other churches, which are similar. Just “the good news of the Kingdom”<<

    The problem here is that He did not send you His Scripture to be your sole teacher, He established His Church to do that, among other things.

    I am using the language of the great theologians of His Church, particularly Aquinas, so I now understand your reaction. I write primarily for a Catholic audience. We reject the error of Sola Scriptura whereby one thinks that all that has been revealed is contained in the Scriptures alone and that the Scriptures are the sole rule of faith. Such a belief is self-contradictory (not found in the bible) and contrary to the bible’s own word… “But if I should be delayed, you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

    God has much more planned for us than His creation, He plans to share His life of communion with us. That is heaven.

    “For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore, console one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18).

    “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where (I) am going you know the way. Thomas said to him, ‘Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father’” (John 14:1-7).

    I would also suggest you pray on 1 Corinthians 15. You aspire to too little. God’s promise is much more.

    Deacon Mike

  5. Some clarification, please:
    First, I do believe that “the saved enter Heaven”. Rev 7, cited, shows a specific group of people entering Heaven; if not “saved” they wouldn’t be there. The chapter also shows another, indefinitely larger group, “And they cried with a loud voice, saying: Salvation to our God, who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb.” Who are they? John’s guide says, “These are they who have come out of great tribulation and have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Whence are they? V 14 says “out of the great tribulation”. Where are they? They are “before the throne” (vv 9,15). Thus they are “saved”, but not part of the heavenly group, so they must be the first of those who will repopulate the restored earth. (Compare Isa 66:1, Mt 5:35, Acts 7:49) In any case, I believe Heaven and earth will contain “saved” ones.
    “It is difficult to imagine one who wants the dessert but not the main course!” I’m not sure how to take that analogy; what I want is whatever God purposes to give me. God only having full knowledge of what that is, I think it presumptive or worse to ‘not want’ that. The descriptions of the restored Eden sound just fine to me. (And Adam lost Eden by wanting more than he was given.)
    Second, “Sola Scriptura” is a statement sometimes offered by Catholics in response [rebuttal?] to my use of any scripture on any topic. I do not have that “error” because I do not follow that doctrine, whatever it is. The Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8- a superior person by the description of him- encountered a difficult passage in scripture and he was able to take advantage [God-given!] of Philip’s exegesis. I am a literate person, so I read and mostly understand, as do you. When I have difficulty I go to my own ‘Philips’. The main ones of these are named Paul, Peter, James, Jude and so on. Secondarily I have some who also use my main helpers (sons of Philip?). Yours are Augustine, Aquinas, Jerome and so on, supplemented by those who came after; sons of Aquinas, say. Mine, I feel, have precedence and were (as you note) given by God for that purpose.
    Finally, I do not believe “God has much more planned for us than His creation, He plans to share … heaven.” He had “planned” (I prefer “purposed”) a perfect life for us on earth, and that purpose cannot fail. According to the scriptures I cited- and there are many more- it will not fail; it will be realized “on earth as it is in Heaven”. Else why pray for that ‘kingdom to come’? Was Jesus joking at Mt 6? I think not.

    Again: I find in Genesis a simple, reasonable, clear setting-down of God’s creation and man’s wonderful part in it. I find that part being jerked out from under me by Adam. Beginning at Gen 3:15 (as you do) I find my part in it restored, if I obey God and his Son and follow the rules given me. I’m happy with this; I “aspire” to no more. I know of the mainstream church belief of Heaven or Hell but nothing else. But did I miss anything IN SCRIPTURE to counteract my hope in a restored earth? That is, are the scriptures I cited- Isa 55:11; Ps 115:16 (114/115:24, Douay); Rev 21:3,4 among many- not referring to the earth? Does “land” at Ps 37:29 mean “heaven”, not the earth?

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