“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
—1 Corinthians 15:55
Since I am writing about death, I think I may begin with my own life. Autobiography is, after all, a kind of first-person eulogy for the living. Here is what I think is my earliest memory: “Now I lay me down to sleep. / I pray the Lord my soul to keep. / If I should die before I wake, / I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
Although Maria the sweet old Slovak sitter said vake and ze, my supple three-year-old senses could repeat after her without adopting her fractured pronunciation, as she heard my prayers before bed, one bright summer evening in the Los Angeles of the early 60’s. She let me say them looking out the window of the nursery at the church across the yard, as my father was preceding a casket out the main door. There were Santana winds, and so he was billowing in black and white and purple.
In the following years, I would hear my father recite the antiphon from the medieval liturgy found in the burial office of the Prayer Book (an antiphon I later rediscovered in its Latin original in my monastery’s singing of Compline during Lent): “In the midst of life we are in death; of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins are justly displeased? Yet, O Lord most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.”
Mere children, and generations of them, have been exposed in their tenderest years, not only to the thought of death and Hell, but to the distinct possibility that they might die and that they might be everlastingly lost. Little first communicants of Roman obedience have long been taught to pray that they are sorry for their sins because they “dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell.” It is hardly a secret that these notions are now widely considered as unsuitable for children, and perhaps for anyone else. One has only to examine some new forms of the Act of Contrition, a kind of contrition “lite,” free of the thought of punishment temporal or eternal; or the expurgated version in use of “Now I lay me down to sleep,” with its cheerful certainty of the “morning light,” which rhymes with “night.”
Just this past year, the Vatican’s International Theological Commission published a document studying the question of the fate of children below the age of reason who die without Baptism. It was widely touted as a repudiation of the various traditional patristic and scholastic (and scriptural) doctrines of East and West, which have universally (not even the Pelagians or the gently Origenistic St. Gregory of Nyssa did otherwise) denied supernatural bliss to them. The most well-developed elaboration of this tradition is that of the limbus puerorum, the limbo of the children. In fact, the document is not so much a repudiation of these theses—which it is well-nigh impossible to do, given the weight of Christian tradition, and the absence (or so it would seem) of any claim to be able to revise an ongoing revelation, such as that available to the magisterium of the Latter Day Saints. What this much publicized nonmagisterial document actually expressed is rather that contemporary Western European Christians are scandalized by the thought that the large number of children who die without Baptism are excluded from Heaven, and that some alternative should be offered their sensibilities that somehow does not transgress the elastic bounds of orthodoxy. Presumably, those who are not scandalized by this possibility are left free to maintain the classical positions, as long as they admit that it is permissible to hope that there may be a way, albeit simply miraculous, for them to reach Heaven, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches.
Although the reader may be able to divine the tendencies of this writer on the question, the reason for bringing it up here is not to discuss a current tension between orthodoxy and orthopraxis. St. Ignatius of Loyola, after all, teaches that, if the discussion of a doctrine is an occasion for disedification or too difficult for public presentation, it should not be preached upon. Rather, the issue to be expounded here is a more fundamental one: Why are contemporary “believers” scandalized by unbaptized children in Hell or limbo, when, not so long ago, baptized Episcopalian children were warned in their prayers against eternal loss even before they reached the age of discretion?
An answer is going to be offered here which may seem beyond strange coming from a cleric who is both an Augustinian and a Thomist. A prefatory clarification is thus in order. It is certain that the natural immortality of the spiritual human soul can be established with the clearest proofs from the operations of the human intellect. This philosophical truth can be an important preamble to the truths of faith professed by Christians.
In fact, this doctrine is at the root of the current eschatological scandal. Yet the real scandal and its efficacious resolution are found in confronting and resolving the question not of what goes on after death, but of death itself. In their notions of the world to come, modern Western Christians are direct heirs, not of the robust kerygma of the Bible and the Fathers, but of denatured post-Christian versions of Christian anthropological teaching. Just as everyone believes in the Universal Rights of Man—liberty, equality, and fraternity, und so weiter—so they all believe in personal survival after bodily death, in the “afterlife,” in which we are “with God” and probably also aware of those whom we have left behind.
The real issue, the proverbial 800-pound gorilla so beloved of therapists, is so large and obvious that no one confronts it: Millions of little children die, whether their death is spontaneous or procured. The God Who made them lets them die, and often terribly, and often at the hands of their own mothers. Why, then, are we not scandalized by this? Because we place our outraged sense of order at several removes from the most pertinent fact of mortality, assuming a continued existence after a morally absurd death, and that it ought to be not only pleasant but literally infinitely better than this life.
The Preacher tells us in Ecclesiastes 3,
I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.
For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?
If the soul is a human soul, its natural capacities after death are limited, since men depend on their bodies for knowledge. Aristotle and the Old Testament agree in principle: Left to itself, the human soul after death has a truncated existence with a knowledge indistinct and ineffective, a limbo not even of natural happiness, but of shadowy imprecision—a kind of sleep, indifferent to whether the soul was good or evil while in the body. The Platonic elaborations are only edifying myth, and Plato admits as much. Only God can overcome the natural consequences of the separation of the soul from the corporeal and necessary instruments, the organs of its operation, and, if He does so by providing the separated soul with distinct experience, knowledge, and memory, by supplying in act for the lack of a body, then this is, in principle, no different from the full complement of a merciful—or, in the case, of the wicked, just—intervention: namely, the Resurrection of the Dead.
Post-Christian society, like late antique society—the former, because it is justly haunted by the Apocalypse and scholasticism; the latter, because it accepted the popularized doctrine of Plato’s dialogues—takes for granted a rather vivid mythology of life after death that is not warranted by the natural facts of the case. And it is to the natural facts of the case that a genuine biblical eschatology is meant to respond. If we understand human nature as necessarily and essentially a composite of body and soul, death is the main obstacle to a properly human happiness. Thus, Heaven and Hell become assertions of the divine justice which the natural state of the separated soul would never be able to attain. Heaven and Hell are not simply the moral continuations of the soul’s life beyond this life; they are intrinsically bound up with the resolution of the problem of death. To be sure, the Beatific Vision may be established, even with dialectical and philosophical arguments, to be the end of man, an end he has in common with other spiritual creatures who have no body and cannot die, but this is a point established independently of whether a man must die. Death or no, it is all the same if one parts from the perspective of the intellectual nature of man; on this point, he might as well be an angel, as Saint Thomas acutely determines. The most specifically biblical element is the resolution by God of the aporia of death in the Resurrection and its preliminaries, not the natural immortality of the soul, or its disembodied bliss or punishment, which, in any case, only points to the full Resurrection, since the divine initiative that punishes or rewards must do so by compensating for the lack of a body.
It is not without reason that the principal Christian doctrine is called the Incarnation, the embodiment of the Word, or that the earliest Christologies are characterized by the Logos-Sarx, the Word-Flesh union. The religion of Jesus is the religion of God in the flesh overcoming death, and not the religion of the immortal soul. Personal survival after death is a truth that could well endure without a revelation, and without this same revelation, the knowledge of it is not really a consolation if one considers seriously the implications of the subsistence of the form of a body without a body.
Thus, Saint Irenaeus and Arnobius of Sicca clearly understand immortality not as a natural gift, but as the gift of grace. In the case of the former, this is not because he would not grant a natural immortality its rational place, but because to be really immortal for man means not just to exist, but to live in the body. In his Adversus Nationes, Arnobius of Sicca goes even further, attacking the doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul as a pagan fable, destructive of morality and piety, the refuge of the lawless. For Arnobius, only God in Christ resolves the problem of death, because only He can restore man to life after death and so reward and punish with complete justice:
The conviction of the soul’s immortality not only is a stimulus for vices, but it also removes the rationale of philosophy itself and shows the futility of taking it up because of the difficulty that it leads to nothing. For if it is true that souls know no end and march along with every century in the unbroken line of the ages, what danger is there when the virtues, by which life becomes somewhat limited and unattractive, are despised and neglected and one surrenders himself to pleasures and permits the untempered heat of wild desire to rampage through lust of every kind? The danger of falling away under indulgence and of being ruined by the enervation of vices? But how can that be ruined which is immortal, which exists forever and is not subject to any suffering? . . . How can that be befouled which has no corporeal substance?
No one would give Arnobius a laurel for profound philosophical insight, but he stands as an important witness, even if a wrong-headed one, to the fact that the immediate and essential point of the orthodox biblical teaching for an ancient Catholic is the sure hope of resurrection and judgment, whether merciful or just, not personal survival after death. This perspective is more wholesome because it meets the question of human destiny at a point that no theological acrobatics can eliminate: the disaster for human nature of physical death. We will never read an article announcing “Theologians Abolish Death,” even though we have read articles suggesting that they have abolished Hell or at least its vicinity. You see, it is Christ who has abolished death by His Resurrection and established mercy and justice firmly in the world to come, and if, in His justice, He decreed the penalty of death, then we will not be scandalized by other penalties, or take for granted His merciful rewards.
Even so, in the meantime, I will sing the threnody with the Scottish poet, with its refrain from the funeral dirge of Matins, and think of my childish, human fears that I learned when I learned to pray as a Christian, hopeful of overcoming death, “That strong unmerciful tyrand / Takis, on the motheris breast sowkand / the babe full of benignite:— / Timor Mortis conturbat me” (William Dunbar, “Lament for the Makers”).