Life is sweet. The love of life is inherent in human nature, hence, death is not what most human beings wish themselves. But we need to understand why man sees death as something terrible.
The body and soul are meant for each other. They enjoy an intimate union such that parting seems almost impossible. The separation of the soul from the body which we call death is a painful experience. The body knows that when the soul separates from her, she goes back to dust, food for worms. The soul will then be faced with an unknown future because what will lie before her is unknown. The body and soul do not want their union to be broken.
Jesus underwent such a sorrowful passion. He was in agony at the garden of Gethsemane and afterwards was tortured. Yet all His suffering do not compare to what he suffered at the moment of death. It was only when he was about to die that the Gospels record that he cried out with a loud voice: Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last (Mk. 15:37). This is a pointer to the fact that the separation of His Sacred soul from His Sacred body was acutely painful.
Death in itself is bitter. This bitterness will be enhanced by a clear remembrance of the sins of our past life, by the thought of the judgment to come, the eternity before us and the assaults of the devil. How much terror will fill the soul. If not for God’s help, the soul will despair.
God permitted Satan to tempt Job. He also permits him to tempt us even at the point of death. The temptation particularly at the point of death is not for our damnation but for our probation. Before we breathe our last we have to prove that nothing – NOTHING – will make us forsake God, hence, the test. Trust the devil not to make it an easy one for he will employ all the power he received and bring all his forces to bear upon the dying man in the hope of causing him to sin so that he can be eternally damned. All through our lives, we are at war with the devil who keeps tempting us. But all his temptations will not compare to the assaults he will unleash at the hour of our death. The reason can be easily understood. The devil knows that once the soul he assaults dies without giving in, he has lost the soul forever. So he will do all he can at that final moment. The assaults will not be of ordinary character. They will be so violent that without the supernatural assistance of God, weak mortals will not be able to resist them. Anyone, therefore, who is careless about his life is making it more difficult to resist the devil at his dying hour. If you are not able to resist the devil now that you are healthy and strong, how sure are you that you can do so when you are weak and at the hour of your death?
Besides these, we are taught that the appearance of the spirits will make death even more alarming to us. A story is told of a Brother Giles who beheld the apparition of the devil one day while he was praying in his cell. The shape of the devil was so frightful to Brother Giles that he lost the power of speech. As he could not utter a word, he raised his heart in prayer to God and the devil vanished. Later, he related what he saw to his brother-monks while trembling from head to foot. Going to St. Francis, he asked, “Father, have you ever seen anything in this world the sight of which was so horrible that it was enough to kill one to behold it?” St. Francis replied, “I have indeed seen such a thing. It is none other than the devil, whose aspect is so loathsome that no one could gaze upon it even for a short time and live, unless God specially enabled him to do so.”
St. Cyril also writing to St. Augustine, says that one of the three men who were raised from the dead told him: “As the hour of my departure drew nigh, a multitude of devils, countless in number, came and stood about me. Their forms were more horrible than anything imagination can conceive. One would rather be burnt in fire than be compelled to look upon them. These demons ranged themselves around me, and reproached me with all the misdeeds I had ever done, thinking to drive me to despair. And in fact I should have given way before them, had not God in His mercy come to my succor.”1
The terrors of the devil will be overwhelming but the guardian angel and the saints will be there to assist the child of God.
Above all that has been considered to make death a terrible experience is the thought of the judgment of God. It will come to mind that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31). Even the pious will fear God’s judgment because His judgment is different from man’s judgment. God is perfect and his standards are so high. One would cringe at the thought of appearing before him in judgment.
It will be a strange sensation for the soul when she is finally separated from the body. For the first time, she will see clearly how infinite God is, what sin is, and what eternity is. All these will astonish the soul who will afterwards be conducted before God’s tribunal so that she may give account of all her actions. Such terror. Even a criminal with all his hired lawyers still fear the sentence that a human judge will administer on account of his crime. How much more will the soul fear the judgment of God that will determine her eternal destiny.
Fr. Martin von Cochem, O.S.F.C., states six things that will strike terror into the soul when she is summoned to the particular judgment:
- The soul fears because she knows her Judge to be omniscient; that nothing can be concealed from Him, nor can He be in any way deceived.
- Because her Judge is omnipotent; nothing can withstand Him, and no one can escape from Him.
- Because her Judge is not merely the most just, but the most strict of judges, to whom sin is so hateful that He will not allow the slightest transgression to pass unpunished.
- Because the soul knows that God is not her judge alone, but also her accuser; she has provoked Him to anger, she has offended against Him, and He will defend His honour and avenge every insult offered to it.
- Because the soul is aware that the sentence once uttered is irrevocable; there is no appeal for her to a higher court, it is useless for her to complain of the sentence. It cannot be reversed, and whether adverse or favorable she must needs accept it.
- The most powerful reason of all why the soul fears to appear before the judgment seat is because she knows not what the sentence of the Judge will be. She has far more cause to fear than to hope. And all thought of help is now over…
These six points fill the soul with such unspeakable anguish and terror, that were she mortal instead of immortal, she would be willing to die the most cruel and violent death as a means of escape. 2
None of us living will escape death. It is actually a good practice to think about death once in a while and live the day as if it will be the last. This will help one avoid occasions of sin and grow in holiness so as to inherit God’s kingdom. Not thinking about death at all will not make you live forever on earth. On the other hand, thinking about death occasionally will not make you die earlier than your appointed time.
I have thought about death and have come to this conclusion: whoever lives as if he will not die, will die as if he never lived.
We are all called to cooperate with God’s grace for our salvation. We can still make use of His mercy now. After death we face His justice. So, work out your salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).
- Martin von Cochem, O.S.F.C., The Four Last things: Death, Judgement, Hell, Heaven, 1899, TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., Illinois, p. 20.
- Ibid., pp. 28-29.