Rev. Dr. Joseph Thondiparambil V.C
It is usual that thoughts about death make people restless and uneasy. To the question what happens after death, philosophers and world religions give different answers. For the atheists this question has no relevance. Those who believe in God strongly hope in a life after death. Here I am trying to briefly explain some of the things that impinge on our practical life, in the light of the fundamental beliefs of the Catholic Church regarding life after death.
THE PHENOMENON OF DEATH
Death is the end of physical life. With death, the soul departs from the body. As far as an individual is concerned, the possibility of receiving or rejecting Gods grace comes to an end with his death. If the person has been living a life basically pleasing to God, he will continue his life with God. On the contrary if his life had been one of recalcitrance and rejection of the divine laws, God, who gives man his choice through free-will, would allow him to have his way. The Word of God qualifies the first state as heaven and the second state as hell (Mt 25:46).
NO QUALIFYING AFTER DEATH
With death a person loses his opportunity to enter a life of faith and thereby qualify himself for eternal life. In other words the opportunity to choose how one should live with God or without God is available only during ones life time. The life of faith is not for the dead. With death one enters eternity. The life of faith and hope is only during the life on this earth. It is only love that lasts in eternity.
Through phrases like Night is coming when no one can work (Jn 9 :4) and It is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgement (Heb 2:27-28), the Holy Bible has been highlighting this truth. It is the height of folly for some religious quacks to say that they can recall the souls of the dead and lead them to salvation by preaching Gospel to them. It is obvious that people who propagate such fallacious notions do it by misinterpreting some quotations and reading between the lines. It is a classic example that the devil quoting the Bible to prove his point.
PURIFICATION AFTER DEATH
Only the most pure and immaculate can be in the presence of God. One may be fundamentally a lover of God and might be trying to live a life in consonance with the divine commandments. Still he is not perfectly purified. But his ability to gain graces for himself comes to an end with death. In this state, the Bible suggests certain ways for the purification process of the dead person.
In the Old Testament itself we see the tradition of praying for the dead and offering sacrifices on their behalf. We read in 2 Maccabees 12:38-45 the incident in which Judas Maccabeus sending an amount of two thousand drachmas of silver to Jerusalem to provide for an offering for atonement on behalf of the soldiers killed in battle.
The Bible adds this to the incident In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. In the New Testament, no instances of praying for the dead are specifically recorded. Still from the earliest times among the Christians, there has been the practice of remembering the dead, and doing some kind of festivities at the sepulchers.
It was from some indications given in the New Testament that the Catholic Church began to teach the concept of a purgatory (Mt 5:26;12:32; 1 Cor 3:11-15). These Scriptural passages point to the possibility of some sins being forgiven in this world itself, whereas some to be forgiven only in the world to come. The main intention of the Letters in the New Testament was primarily to show how the people who believed in Christ and entered the heavenly bliss lived their life on this earth.
The primary intent of the Gospels, on the other hand, was telling the world the good news of the salvific mission which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Therefore the Apostles did not deal at length with the purification process after death. Not only that, they had the faith that the second coming of Christ would not be a far-off day affair (Mk 9:1; Lk 9:27; Rev 22:20). It was in the light of the theological expansion that the teachings of the Church regarding purification were formulated. The Gospel by John asserts that with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Church would be led to perfection of truth (Jn 14:26).
PRAYER FOR THE DEAD
One cannot qualify by himself for eternal life after his death. But the living people can help that person. The Catholic Church follows this principle that has been in existence from the earliest times of the Church. It is because the Bible testifies theologically that the Church teaches that prayers for the dead, especially the Holy Mass, giving alms, doing acts of sacrifice and so on will help the souls in the purgatory in their purification process.
The Church also teaches that this kind of help by the living can be done only to those who had lived a life basically carrying out the divine injunctions. Ones relations with the dead do not end with his death. For the Christians, a communion of saints is a big truth (1 Cor 12:12-13; Rom 12:5-8). In the body of the Church, the members are mutually joined. The teaching of the Catholic Church that we can help the dead through our prayers and almsgiving gives us joy, hope, guarantee and consolation on the face of death