The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: The Last Things

It is desirable that the central truths of faith are put before the Sunday congregations in connection with the Scripture readings, or at least the liturgical texts. This is not always easy; in fact it is rarely so. There are, however, certain occasions in which it is possible, in fact indicated, such as the mystery of the Incarnation (Jesus as God and human) at Christmas, the Blessed Trinity. This particular Sunday presents an ideal opportunity of speaking of the Last Things.

            The “Last Things” were traditionally regarded as four: death, judgment, hell and heaven. It is advisable to go beyond these and to treat of the final elements of the Apostles Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting”. It presents an opportunity to consider these with the aid of their treatment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), nos. 988-1050, which gives references to the relevant sections of the documents of the Vatican Council. These documents are available online, and links are given to them here.

            Whether there is any afterlife is something that most people will experience as they grow older, or find themselves near the end of life. When asked the question one has mainly to say that most believers are in the same position. The answer depends to a good extent on one’s faith. One does not arrive at conviction on the matter from reason or sentiment alone. Faith in the Church, and in Christ’s resurrection and all it stands for supplies the answer: belief in Christ implies union of believers with Christ after death. Death in a Christian sense is not the end: at death life is changed, not ended.

            The doctrine on the resurrection can supply a certain corrective to the desire of so many in our day for immediate answers in some matters of faith. There is development of doctrine. Belief in bodily resurrection came very late in Israelite history, long after Abraham, the prophets Isaiah (700 BC), Jeremiah (600 BC) and others. The belief was further refined in later generations in the Church as problems arose. A Greek mentality would prefer eternal life without bodily resurrection, but Christian tradition resisted this.

            Various questions arise today concerning a number of traditional beliefs regarding the last things, in consideration of which the essential truth must be distinguished from the manner in which they were presented or understood in Christian teaching or imagination. For instance Purgatory, where the essential doctrine is the age-old belief in the value of the prayers of the living for the dead; regarding hell, the essential belief that lives of unrepented sin will be punished after death in the next life. And thus for so many other questions, on which the Catechism of the Catholic Church may be worth consulting.

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