It is hard for us to believe truly that we are going to die. Perhaps, believing in the reality of our own death marks the passage to adulthood. “The difficulty to conceive of our own deaths is perhaps some kind of survival mechanism to prevent it from actually happening” (Samuel, 2019). If we can somehow convince ourselves that only other people die, it does not seem real to us and is somehow less threatening.
Many of us seem to have “a neurosis when it comes to death, with most of us displaying the classic signs of such a disorder (e.g., anxiety, depression, hypochondria) whenever we have to confront the subject in real life” (Samuel, 2019). Our minds are sick when faced with the reality of death. We try to avoid the topic by manifesting some other disorder, such as anxiety, depression, or hypochondria. Whether we are confronting the death of a loved one or coming to terms with our own mortality, death is a challenge.
How do we face death? It seems so final. It seems as if it always wins. The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes gives some key clues on how to respond to the existential question of death.
Mystery of death
The mystery of death surpasses human imagination. “The Church has been taught by divine revelation and firmly teaches that man has been created by God for a blissful purpose beyond the reach of earthly misery” (Vatican Council II, 1965, §18). What does it mean that the Church has been taught this by divine revelation? Faith is essentially believing something thanks to the testimony of somebody else. I know that my little sister is applying for college because my mother told me. We believe people that we trust. “The Church has been taught by divine revelation” means that the Church has received this message from God. Now, the Church teaches the same. The question for us becomes whether or not we believe the Church. Do we have reason to trust what the Church is telling us?
Created for happiness
The Church is saying that we created for something supremely happy. If we have reason to believe the Church, we should believe this as well. We all have trusted sources of information. Is the Church one of your trusted sources of information? As Catholics, we believe that the joy of the future world surpasses the suffering of the present one. It also goes beyond the possible happiness of the current world in which we live.
Conquering of death
Furthermore, the Church believes that “bodily death from which man would have been immune had he not sinned will be vanquished… when man who was ruined by his own doing is restored to wholeness by an almighty and merciful savior” (Vatican Council II, 1965, §18). We experience death as the ceasing of the functions of the body. The philosophers tell us that death occurs when the body separates from the soul; or rather, when the soul leaves the body behind. Death has come into the world because of sin, what we call in theology original sin. If Adam had not sinned, we would not experience death. Nonetheless, death will be conquered when man is restored by his savior. This has come about through the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ.
Life beyond corruption
God calls man “and still calls him so that with his entire being he might be joined to Him in an endless sharing of a divine life beyond all corruption” (Vatican Council II, 1965, §18). God calls all humans to be holy. There is a universal call to holiness. This call comes also in the context of death, which highlights that the call is to divine life beyond all corruption. During our earthly existence, we experience the second law of thermodynamics, which is the law of entropy. All things tend to chaos, to less order. After reaching the ideal age of our bodies, we feel this through the gradual decline of our bodies. Why does God permit this decline? It is a mystery. Nevertheless, it does serve to highlight his call beyond corruption. The eternal life to which we are called does not fall under the natural processes of decay.
Reason for faith
Why do we have this faith? “Christ won the victory when He rose to life, for by His death He freed man from death” (Vatican Council II, 1965, §18). Death is a one-way street. Except in the case of Jesus Christ. There are stories of other resurrections or coming back from the dead. However, the case of Jesus is unique. He rose from the dead by his own power. He even waited three days to make it more evident that he was truly dead and truly came back to life. He had promised to conquer death and through his resurrection, he did precisely that. He rose from the dead, never to die again.
Resurrection and hope
The resurrection of Christ gives us hope. “To every thoughtful man a solidly established faith provides the answer to his anxiety about what the future holds for him” (Vatican Council II, 1965, §18). Death is coming for all of us, but for the believer, this is not a tragedy. We know that someone good is calling us from beyond the grave. His resurrection gives us reason to trust him and his goodness.
United in Christ
“At the same time faith gives him the power to be united in Christ with his loved ones who have already been snatched away by death; faith arouses the hope that they have found true life with God” (Vatican Council II, 1965, §18).
When Jesus was about to raise the brother of Martha and Mary, he did not simply promise to bring him back to life. He said to Martha: “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (Jn. 12:24). His words were proven true when he rose from the dead on the third day. His resurrection is the foundation for our hope.
To ask the big questions of faith and life is not a sign of unbelief. Rather, it is an opportunity to grow deeper in the faith and trust more fully the testimony of the one we love: Jesus Christ.
Samuel, L.R. (2019). The psychology of death. The difficulty to conceive of our own deaths is perhaps a survival mechanism. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/psychology-yesterday/201903/the-psychology-death
Vatican Council II. (1965). Gaudium et spes [Pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, Joys and hopes]. https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html