Death of the Afterlife

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis retells the epic journey of Dante from hell to heaven in a way that should be readily accessible to modern readers. In the opening scene, the protagonist runs into a small crowd of people in what otherwise appears to be a dreary ghost town. They are getting ready to board a bus for the ride of a lifetime—a brief holiday from hell in heaven, or a final release from purgatory, depending on how one reads the story.

It’s a sort of abbreviated and modernized version of Dante’s Divine Comedy, but the question raised in Lewis’ story—what happens to us after we die?—would nonetheless be a head-scratcher for many Americans.

Our culture is one that denies death and worships youth. We pump poison into our faces, jam silicon into our bodies, and bathe ourselves in all sorts of crazy concoctions in an effort to delay the bodily dilapidation that come with aging. As cultural critic Christopher Lasch has pointed out, what was once viewed as the natural aging process has become a medical problem to be solved.

As for death itself, our society has done everything it can to make the inevitable invisible. As a New York Times writer recently observed, the West has spent the last century “sequestering the dying and dead away from everyday life,” which is why the elderly have been exiled to nursing homes while the bodies of the dead are “secreted behind hospital curtains.” Little wonder, then, that our culture is so obsessed with alternatives to the normal process of death. One has to look no further than the Twilight vampire series or the endless hordes of zombies on shows like The Walking Dead to see to what lengths the American imagination will go to distract itself from the real thing.

Ultimately, the denial of death is really a denial of life after death.

With the decline of faith, people are increasingly unsure about where they are going in the afterlife—or whether there will even be an afterlife. Therefore, it becomes necessary to postpone and push to the fringes of our consciousness the event that brings it all about: death.

When pressed by pollsters—if not their pastors—to say what they really believe about the afterlife, Americans consistently express belief in heaven, but not hell. One can only imagine that the concept of purgatory, where the saved still suffer, would fare no better in such surveys, not to mention limbo, the no-man’s land between perdition and paradise where unbaptized babies are reputed to go.

Hell is usually the biggest sticking point when it comes to conversations with unbelievers and skeptics about the afterlife. The reason is simple and it always comes in the form of a question: How could a loving God send someone to eternal punishment for their sins? Maybe the worst of criminals deserves a hundred or even a few thousand years in the lake fire of hell, the thinking goes—but eternity, isn’t that going a bit too far?

To critics, hell is possible only if there isn’t a loving God. But it turns out it’s only by taking the reality of a loving God seriously that hell—along with purgatory, limbo, and heaven—makes any sense.

Hell as Separation:  Hell is traditionally defined as the place where sinners suffer eternal punishment for their sins. As correct as this definition is, it doesn’t do justice to the fundamental reason that sinners end up there in the first place. The Church teaches that sin separates us from God. As Christians, we know that the barrier between us and God is bridged through the Cross. As Catholic Christians, we know that the saving grace won for us on the Cross is initially imparted to us through baptism and then is renewed repeatedly in Confession, which has aptly been renamed the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Hell, then, is the inevitable destination of all those who have not become reconciled to God through Christ in this life. Put simply, hell is eternal separation from God.

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Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • JMC

    I’ve always found the description of the Holy Innocents in “The Mystical City of God” by St. Mary of Agreda (translated by Fiscar Marison) to lend particular hope when we recommend the souls of unbaptized infants to the mercy of God. In one of St. Mary’s visions, Our Lady told her that God sanctified the souls of those infants (since baptism as we know it did not yet exist) so they could go directly to Heaven. I suspect that, when our newborns die without benefit of baptism, since it is through no fault of their own, God may very well act in this mysterious way to grant them access to Heaven. It also offers hope to those who are rightly concerned about the souls of aborted infants. In that same vision, St. Mary was told that God also gave those Holy Innocents the use of reason, so they could offer their sufferings to God in expiation for sin. So, even as we pray to end this heinous practice, we can hope that those unborn babies were able to offer the indescribable suffering of being literally torn from the womb, in prayer for the rest of us here on Earth.

  • rosebud

    I’ve heard from the excellent apologists on EWTN that the Church’s doctrine of “Baptism of Desire” can include the desire of the parents whose child has died without baptism. What SWEET CONSOLATION for grieving parents !

  • chaco

    I asked an agnostic; “How can you be OK with the thought of death ?” They replied; “Nothingness would be OK.” I pondered – then replied; “You can’t say that because “OK” is something – Nothing is nothing. ” If one loves life, they must necessarily be bothered by the thought of losing that something they love. Anyone who claims no concern about their mortality doesn’t love their life (suicidal) or they’re in denial. [..."By the infinite merits of His Sacred Heart & through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, we beg of you the conversion of poor sinners." (from Fatima Eucharistic prayer)]

  • http://JamesTPereira.com/ James T Pereira

    Since “limbo” is not an article of faith, please indulge my rant against it. I believe it’s a great injustice that limbo exists. How can we even believe that a just God can perpetuate such a travesty of justice.
    Limbo also indicates a God of double standards. The Catholic believes that non-Christian adults can go to heaven if they have done God’s will, without any sacraments. So how come babies who die without sacraments go elsewhere?
    We are also taught that God desires every soul to be with Him in Heaven. How can He create a soul, who will be aborted or be still-born or live-born but die before baptism and then abandoned to limbo?
    I can accept Hell but not Limbo.

  • http://JamesTPereira.com/ James T Pereira

    One more comment. If Limbo exists we couldn’t possible have the feast of Holy Innocents. None of them were baptised, since baptism came about 30 years later? Shouldn’t they all be in Limbo, instead of Heaven, since we believe Saints are in Heaven and only those in Heaven are Holy.

  • Peter Nyikos

    Why should Limbo be any more unjust than if the babies had never been conceived in the first place? The concept of limbo that I was taught was that it was a place of perfect happiness, just like heaven except that the children never had the Beatific Vision. We should all be so fortunate after we die.

    Anyway, the official position of the Catholic Church is that while we do not know the ultimate fate of unbaptized infants who die, we can be assured of God’s love and mercy towards them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.vondra John Vondra

    Great article- Leads to though about, Resurrection of the body-what about the bodies of those creamated and their ashes placed on a self or scattered over land or sea. For those that believe in the resurrection of the body the economics of burial is causing problems.

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