When facing death, hope is key for Christians

By long tradition, “last things” is a collective name given death, judgment, the resurrection of the body, heaven, hell and purgatory. The systematic study of such matters as these is called “eschatology” in theological language. Probably, though, a true-life story is a better introduction to these profound realities than a theological discourse would be. (We’ll get to theology a little later.)

In the middle years of the last century, A.J. Ayer was one of the biggest names in British philosophy. In 1936, at the age of 26, Ayer — his first name was Alfred, but everyone called him Freddie — published “Language, Truth and Logic,” a book that made him famous. Thereafter he taught at Oxford as a professor of logic until his death in 1989.

Ayer’s book introduced the philosophical system called logical positivism into British philosophical circles. Central to it is what is called the “verifiability criterion,” according to which all statements except those of mathematics and logic are in effect meaningless nonsense.

Near-death experience

Ayer denied being an atheist or even an agnostic, but it was hard to tell the difference. In a chapter of “Language, Truth and Logic” titled “A Critique of Ethics and Theology,” the author argued that it was meaningless to say that God either did or didn’t exist.

On June 6, 1988, Ayer choked on a piece of salmon. He lost consciousness and was declared to be clinically dead for four minutes. After he was revived, the doctor asked him what his near-death experience was like.

“I saw a divine being,” the doctor reported Ayer as saying. Then, after a pause: “I’m afraid I’m going to have to revise my work.”

Sad to say, Ayer didn’t. Later he published an article acknowledging he’d had a near-death experience, but saying only that it made him a little less certain there’s no afterlife.

Facing death

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that, despite having excellent reasons to do otherwise, people often try not to think about last things. And in a way, that’s understandable. Everyone fears death. Yet in some sense the whole point of life is coming to terms with death.

Hope is central to doing that. Thus hope is inseparable from the last things. It’s a theological virtue — it comes from God and is centered on God. A working definition might be to say hope is the confidence that God will do what he says. The Letter to the Hebrews famously calls it “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” that “enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain [the afterlife, that is], where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf” (Heb 6:19-20).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, treating hope more expansively, says this about it:

“When God reveals Himself and calls him, man cannot fully respond to the divine love by his own powers. He must hope that God will give him the capacity to love Him in return and to act in conformity with the commandments of charity. Hope is the confident expectation of divine blessing, and the beatific vision of God; it is also the fear of offending God’s love and of incurring punishment” (No. 2090).

The virtue of hope shouldn’t be confused with optimism, the expectation that things will turn out well in the here and now. Entertained in moderation and salted with realism, optimism is good. But there’s no justification for the simple-minded belief in “progress” that flourished in the 19th century among people who thought life was sure to get better and better with the passing of time.

That delusion died on the battlefields and in the death camps of the century that followed. As we now realize, people who seek utopia — an earthly paradise — in the triumph of an ideology or a political or economic system are bound to be disappointed. And as the history of a utopian ideology like Marxism illustrates only too well, such people sometimes can do a great deal of harm trying to make their version of utopia a reality.

Christian hope

Christian hope, by contrast, coexists with an expectation having little or no connection with utopian dreams. Starting from the awareness that although God’s kingdom is coming into being here and now, it will only be fully realized in the next life, it is directed to heaven and to our own full and perfect fulfillment there. All of which simply means that the virtue of Christian hope is essentially eschatological — above all, it’s concerned with the last things.

But it’s a mistake simply to leave it at that — something sincere Christians over the centuries have often done. The mistake lies in thinking of our present life as if it were pretty much detached from the next life. In this view, which can be found expressed in countless popular works of a devotional nature, what we do here and now earns us reward or punishment in the afterlife, but that’s about it. There’s no intrinsic link between the here and now and the there and then. Rather, the emphasis is on the discontinuity, the huge and supposedly unbridgeable gulf, between this life and the next.

To be sure, the discontinuity exists all right. For each and every human being, this life, far from blending with the next life in a seamless celestial continuum, sooner or later comes to a final, conclusive end. That great transition point is where the last things come into play.

There is, however, something more to say, something of enormous importance. It was said by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) in a hugely important section of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

Instead of stressing the discontinuity between this life and the next — an approach that makes the actual experience of heaven and hell more or less arbitrary — Vatican II stresses continuity. According to the council, we are preparing God’s kingdom here and now, and what we do now will in some way continue, just as the kingdom will do — forever. The last things truly are last, but last on a spectrum extending, as an old song puts it, “from here to eternity.”

Kingdom of God

To be sure, says Vatican II, we know “neither the moment of the consummation of the earth and of man nor the way the universe will be transformed.” But from divine revelation we do know that God is preparing “a new dwelling and a new earth” where “charity and its works will remain and all of creation, which God made for man, will be set free from its bondage to decay.”

This isn’t pie in the sky, the council insists. Rather than neglecting the here and now, it says, “the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come. … Although we must be careful to distinguish earthy progress clearly from the increase of the kingdom of Christ, such progress is of vital concern to the kingdom of God” (No. 39).

Why? Because human effort even now is helping to build God’s kingdom. Vatican II teaches:

“When we have spread on earth the fruits of our nature and our enterprise — human dignity, brotherly communion and freedom — according to the command of the Lord and his Spirit, we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured, when Christ presents to his Father an eternal and universal kingdom ‘of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace’ [Preface of Christ the King]. Here on earth the kingdom is mysteriously present; when the Lord comes, it will enter into its perfection” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 39).

Not surprisingly, no one now can grasp the full implications of this stupendous vision. Someday we will. But even now that vision should move us to understand the last things in a fresh and very different light — as key elements of what the Book of Revelation calls “new heaven and … new earth” (Rv 21:1).

As for A.J. Ayer, he died a little more than a year after his remarkable experience. It would be interesting to know what his current view of these matters would be. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor. This is the 11th part of a monthly Year of Faith series on virtues.