A Hard Pill to Swallow — I read a book this summer that dealt with death, judgment, heaven and hell from the point of view of classic Christian theology. One specific point reminded me of something I have heard many times, but never thought too much of in my faith journey until this past summer.
Basically, the idea is that regardless of what kind of life you have lived, if in your last free will act you choose God, then you will go to heaven. This has two major implications. One, it allows deathbed conversions—that is, if during your life you denied God, regardless if your lifestyle was immoral or moral, and at the last moment before your death you recant all of your sins with an honest and contrite heart to God, you will get into heaven.
Two, if you have tried to lead a morally upstanding life and have tried to look toward God, and as your last free will act choose mortal sin, choose to look away from God, then, well, sorry Charlie but you’re going to hell.
This is a cold and hard statement—a hard pill to swallow. On one hand, I am happy for those people, who near the end of their lives, choose Light instead of Darkness. But on the other hand, for someone like me who is trying his best to follow Christ, to love God and to love others, to be good and morally upstanding, I could conceive any number of situations where I could make a wrong choice, perhaps as bad as a mortal sin, if my temper or pride took hold of me at the moment before my death.
A friend of mine was quick to point out that the last free will choice you make in life is the last one of a long list of other choices you have made. Each and every one of those choices either brings you closer to God, or away. Each and every one of those choices, as C.S. Lewis puts it, turns you into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature. Each choice you make is not mutually exclusive from the other choices. They are all connected. They influence, but not necessarily determine your next choice. The inertia from all of those previous choices you made are going to influence your last choice. That is, if you have not been looking toward God during your lifetime, you will probably not at the last moment of your life either; if you have been looking toward God during your lifetime, you will probably be looking toward Him at the last moment of your life too.
(An obligatory comment should be made that no one knows the time and place of their death. It could happen at any moment. And so, one should make the choice now, before it is too late.)
Grace for a Good Death — A “good death” does not necessarily mean a non-painful death, but rather that a person will be looking Godward as he or she dies. The grace of a good death is the hope that God will grant the dying person the light to see the choice, the choice between Light and Darkness, between Life or Death, between God or themselves. The grace of a good death is that in their last moments, the heart of the dying person will not be closed and harden, but open. A good death also includes the hope that the dying person has repented fully with a contrite heart, and is honest and genuine in their love for God, for others, and for him or her self.
It also means that we need to be honest with a dying person. We have an obligation to tell them that they are dying, and that they need to think about making things right with God before they die. Because the moment after a person dies, the moment when the soul leaves the body, the Judgment is made. It is immediate and final. There are no appeals, no second chances. We had all the chances we needed before death to make the choice.
In a way, we have prefigured the outcome of that judgment by our last choice, which in turn was influenced, but not absolutely determined, by all the choices made in our lives. Up to the moment of death, there is always hope.
I have heard that there are no gates to heaven, but the gates of hell are locked from the inside. The souls condemned to hell do it to themselves. They prefer it that way. They choose themselves over God, and therefore lock their own hearts from the inside, letting nothing in.
We have also one more obligation to the dying, and to the living—to pray for each other to be granted with God’s grace of a good death. After all, if you love someone, then you should hope to see them again in heaven.
The People You Meet in Heaven — I read the book The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom back in the spring. I really liked the book, except that I was disappointed. We never see the main character meet God.
Maybe it was the idea in Albom’s book, coupled with the song “I Can Only Imagine” by Mercy Me, but I have been playing with this fantasy in my mind about what might happen if I get to heaven.
The first person I would meet is Jesus, face-to-face, heart-to-heart. And in that instant, I would see and know everything about Him and about myself. I would see my true self, the way God sees me, reflected in His eyes. Then after meeting Jesus, as if that wasn’t enough, He would say to me that I have some other people for you to meet. And then suddenly, every person who had an influence on me, or I had had an influence on them, were there to greet me. There would be lots of tears and hugs and kisses, and lots of I love you’s and thank you’s. What a wonderful welcome that would be.
As a result, in my prayer life lately, I have been praying that I may meet all the people I encounter in this life again someday in heaven. I mean everybody. Not just my family and friends, but also all of my students, all my acquaintances, all of the strangers that intersect my life for just a brief moment. This includes people like the cashier at the grocery store or the person in the highway tollbooth, even the guy that cut me off in traffic. I even pray to meet the people I correspond with on the Internet, especially those who read this weblog. (Also, how can someone be an enemy if you pray to meet them again in heaven?)
I pray this prayer not for the selfish reason of meeting them again in heaven. Meeting them in heaven would be just an added bonus. I pray this prayer because I love them. And I desperately want them to share in the love and glory of God.
All of this of course, depends not on my choice, but theirs. It depends on God’s will, not mine.
Father, by Your will, not mine, please grant all the people I encounter in this life Your grace of a good death so that they may one day share in Your beatific vision. Please let us all meet again someday in heaven with You.
And so, until we meet again…