Death – What Every Catholic Must Know About “The Four Last Things”

Jerome in Meditation by Caravaggio

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 3-part 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 His attributes,
  • The moral law or mankind’s relations to God,
  • The physical universe both material and spiritual and
  • Why we exist or the purpose of our existence; 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 will remember that question in the Penny 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.

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.

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19 Responses to Death – What Every Catholic Must Know About “The Four Last Things”

  1. toadspittle says:

    .
    In view of this post, Toad asks yet again: If death is the result of sin, then so, surely, are earthquakes, floods, malaria, broken legs, St Vitus’ dance, and scabies?

    Put it ths way: If Adam hadn’t sinned, would he have ever had the toothache?

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  2. JabbaPapa says:

    If death is the result of sin, then so, surely, are earthquakes, floods, malaria, broken legs, St Vitus’ dance, and scabies?

    Yes and no.

    Yes, in the Catholic definition of sin ; no in the Protestant or atheist definition of it.

    There is a cosmic evil that is the result of Lucifer’s Fall and Angelic Sin against God, if you prefer to get all cosmic and mystical about it.

    Then again, evil and sin are not quite the same thing, even though they obviously overlap significantly.

    Another point of view is that because Original Sin is our knowledge of good and evil that it’s because of our sins that we see those sorts of things as “evils” in the first place.

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  3. toadspittle says:

    .
    Thanks for taking a very reasonable shot at answering, Jabba, but as far as Toad’s concerned, he must go with the Prods/Atheists.
    As he sees it, humans have been assigned an unstable and dangerous planet, more or less by chance, and we have to come to terms with it.
    The price of living on this live planet is earthquakes, disease, constant danger, change, and death. And , of course though we may not care for any of these things, they are not “evil.” Just, as the Bish of Aberdeen said recently, “Facts of Life.”

    Mars doesn’t have these problems because it’s dead, and may never actually have been “alive.”

    How do we explain all the nastiness and horror of our brief, short, ugly lives on Earth?
    Simples. God.

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  4. JabbaPapa says:

    The Proddie version does not account for the fact of the involuntary harm that we do to ourselves and others.

    The atheist one is just some adolescent fire and brimstone Hammer Horror version …

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  5. toadspittle says:

    .
    To be sure, Jabba, we do involuntary harm to ourselves, and also considerable voluntary harm to others when we feel like it – by killing them, largely, as Pascal points out, “…because they live on the other side of the river.”. But that doesn’t explain, at least not to Toad – how forest fires caused by lightning can be the result of Original Sin.

    However, moving right along…

    “At some point, (Adam and Eve) were to pass on to the next life in Heaven, but it would not have been through what we call death.”

    When Toad thinks a bit about this statement, he also thinks this is where the whole somewhat shambolic box of tricks becomes unglued.

    To spell it out: Was the garden of Eden a perfectly happy place? Yes.
    Would Adam and Eve ever want to leave it? No.
    What would be the point of leaving it? To go somewhere even happier? How could that be? And at exactly what point would A & E depart for Heaven, and why then? Before they had children?
    And another thing: In the Garden of Eden, all animals and man lived happily together, right? But did the animals grow old, and sick, and die? Did they eat and excrete? Did Adam have to clean up dog poo? Somebody must have. You can’t just leave it lying around. People step in it.

    Toad supposes that what Deacon Bickerstaff is describing is what we’d all, on CP&S, agree is merely the myth. But, if so, what’s the reality?

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  6. JabbaPapa says:

    To spell it out: Was the garden of Eden a perfectly happy place? Yes.
    Would Adam and Eve ever want to leave it? No.
    What would be the point of leaving it? To go somewhere even happier? How could that be?

    I don’t think that’s the point of that story, in this particular respect — it’s a metaphorical illustration of the human condition — give people everything that they could possibly want or need and put them in a state of perfect bliss, and they’ll find some way to screw it all up and throw it all away.

    Otherwise, speculations about prelapsarian man have some limited value as thought experiments only — and I think this man is going too fare in trying to draw practical points out of these various myths and metaphors.

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  7. toadspittle says:

    .
    “…I think this man is going too far in trying to draw practical points out of these various myths and metaphors…” reassures Jabba.
    Well, that’s a relief. Toad was beginning to wonder if he was hallucinating. But then, maybe he is.

    “..give people everything that they could possibly want or need and put them in a state of perfect bliss, and they’ll find some way to screw it all up and throw it all away.”

    Can’t argue with Jabba on that.
    But, since God had foreknowledge that was exactly what was going to happen…well… I dunno.
    We have to wonder if God ever regrets sparing the Noah family.
    Frequently, nowadays, I shouldn’t be surprised.

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  8. kathleen says:

    Dear Jabba,

    I am enjoying your astute explanations to Toad on these topics, things he has been questioning for so long. Your first paragraph of your last comment sums up the whole thing nicely.

    Perhaps I could just add a small reflection……
    If Man had been programmed to love and obey God automatically, what would be the point of that Love? God wanted Man to come to Him of his own Free Will not as a programmed robot, so God put Adam and Eve to the test and they failed. (That Original Sin was then passed down to us through our first parents.) But God is Merciful and All-loving; He promised that all was not lost, but that as sin has consequences, Man must now toil and labour and suffer to obtain the Paradise he had forfeited through his disobedience. Because of Man’s original ‘felix culpa‘ (happy fault)* God’s Divine Son had to take a human body and come to Redeem us….. which is why Jesus is referred to as the ‘New Adam’.
    IMHO the ‘story’ of Adam and Eve and the Fall is to be seen in this light.

    *(“O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem” = “Oh happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer.” The Exsultet, sung at the Easter night Vigil.)

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  9. toadspittle says:

    Toad seconds Kathleen, re Jabba.
    Although there seem, to him, (Toad, that is, not Jabba) to be grey areas where it’s not clear what is to be considered myth, and what considered fact.
    Very large and very grey they are too.
    However, Toad is very fond of thought experiments. (Who isn’t?)

    “God put Adam and Eve to the test and they failed.” As He knew, from all eternity, that they would. Isn’t that so? Otherwise, God isn’t omniscient.

    So what’s the point of anything at all, that being the case?

    Toad goes all existentials again!

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  10. kathleen says:

    Yes, I believe God in his omniscience obviously did know fragile Man would fail the test. However, I think it is a comforting thought that God, foreseeing the vast Communion of Saints who would overcome sin and destruction, He still thought we were worth bothering about. 😉

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  11. JabbaPapa says:

    grey areas where it’s not clear what is to be considered myth, and what considered fact

    The talking snake is a bit of a giveaway, don’t you think ?

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  12. JabbaPapa says:

    But yes, I’ve just re-read Genesis, and the work as a whole is a curious mix of cosmogony, mysticism, family history, myth, religion, spirituality, and narrative — in other words : quite excellent literature !!!

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  13. toadspittle says:

    .
    Nicely put, Jabba. Toad is just as fond of a bit of literature as the next man, assuming the next man to be Jabba himself, of course.

    Ludicrously and absurdly unfair to serpents, which are just as fascinating and beautiful as seals, squirrels, scorpions, or sea urchins.
    More so, to some.

    But Toad is also wondering about: “However, I think it is a comforting thought that God, foreseeing the vast Communion of Saints who would still overcome sin and destruction..still thought we were worth bothering about.”
    Because he, (Toad that is not God) does not see a vestige of that – either in history, or in these present times. Rampant sin and destruction seem, to him, to be what day-to-day life on Planet Earth is – or has ever been – all about.
    And he thinks, like Voltaire did, that God very likely changed his mind about things a while ago.
    Communion of Saints or not.

    La Rochefoucauld famously said, ” Man cannot look at directly at either death or the sun.” He was right, as far as he went, thinks Toad, but he could more accurately have said, “Man cannot look directly at either life or the sun.”
    Because, if you have the luxury – by way of an hitherto relatively untroubled existence – of being able to look at life squarely, you will see it is all ugly, and brutal, beyond belief.
    God or not.
    And, as God is seen as the Intelligent Designer, He must accept responsibility, mustn’t He?
    Moreover, He made a fearful mess of human knees, and backs, as Burro will readily agree.

    (Standing upright caused the problem. Apparently, He didn’t take that possibility into consideration.)

    Thinks Toad, who is getting too preachy, and wordy, by far.

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  14. JabbaPapa says:

    Because he, (Toad that is not God) does not see a vestige of that – either in history, or in these present times. Rampant sin and destruction seem, to him, to be what day-to-day life on Planet Earth is – or has ever been – all about.
    And he thinks, like Voltaire did, that God very likely changed his mind about things a while ago.
    Communion of Saints or not.

    Voltaire really was just a nasty little satirist, and his writing style wasn’t even that good — he just made his cash on the shock value of the contents, rather than from any special literary qualities.

    Original Sin is Original Sin — and the existence of evil does not come to an end through piety.

    The Communion of the Saints is OTOH absolutely real, it’s nearly the very first thing that I learned in my initial conversion, and within that Communion lies the nature of our relationships within the Church and with God.

    The fact that the Original Sin of the baptised is *forgiven* does NOT mean that it’s just been vanished away, and we all of us will commit personal sins motivated by our Original Sin in every single day of our lives.

    It is our knowledge of good, but also our knowledge of evil — and in this knowledge of evil we will all of us both suffer evils and cause them upon others, whether knowingly or not, willfully or otherwise.

    Without this knowledge of evil, well, that earthquake and tsunami at Lisbon would trouble our souls not in the slightest, would it. But we *do* know of evil, so horrendous disasters like that shock and stun us into our very souls.

    It is a sin, indeed Original Sin, if we should let this shock and horror come between ourselves and God, rather than cleaving to the proper nature of our relationships with Him in the Communion of the Saints, the living and the dead.

    We cannot even begin to understand the purpose of God’s Plan, but it would clearly be wrongful to set up our own little human concerns and sufferings and illnesses as being of greater importance than God Himself — nor for that matter, our little joys and pleasures and successes.

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  15. toadspittle says:

    .

    “Voltaire really was just a nasty little satirist, and his writing style wasn’t even that good ..”

    Right, that’s cooked the Frog. (Though, no doubt, he would be in awe of Jabba’s style.)
    Now back to G. K. Chesterton. But, seriously, Toad thinks “Candide” is a little gem, and written in excellent syle. But he cannot read French.

    Anyway. how can anyone disparage a man who said England was superior to France, because while France had only one religion and 100 types of cheese, England had 100 types of religion and only one cheese?
    That’s philosophy, that is.
    Thinks Toad.

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  16. JabbaPapa says:

    Voltaire is likely better in translation than in the original — but really, I very quickly stopped liking his writing as soon as I started my French Lit degree at the Sorbonne.

    Appreciation of writing is not the same thing as writing oneself (and frankly I’ve always been a far better editor than writer) — but I can’t remember accusing toad of being Voltaire …

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  17. toadspittle says:

    .
    Education is a great thing, to be sure. Would have helped Toad no end.

    “Death is a result of sin.”
    Everything living thing dies. Trees, flowers, birds, bees, dogs, dinosaurs and dodos.
    So they must all sin, Toad supposes.
    There is, frankly, not much chance of Toad re-converting at the best of times, but none at all after reading statements like the above.

    “We cannot even begin to understand the purpose of God’s Plan..” Says Jabba, and Toad will go further – and suggest we d0n’t even know if He’s got a plan or not, let alone what it’s purpose is…

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  18. JabbaPapa says:

    If He had no plan, He’d have recruited none of us … but He has.

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  19. toadspittle says:

    .

    Maybe we’re supposed to come up with the plan.

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