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The Church must challenge the idea that life on earth always ends with heaven

The drama of salvation is one in which we all play a part, whether we like it or not

By on Thursday, 6 September 2012

Michelangelo's Last Judgment (CNS photo)

Michelangelo's Last Judgment (CNS photo)

In the August 24 edition of the print version of The Catholic Herald I wrote an article which dealt with the necessity of evangelisation in the face of declining Catholic practice in the United Kingdom. This attracted two replies in the letters column of the paper the next week, one of which came from Fr Andrew Pinsent, of Oxford University. What he says is so interesting, I thought I would reproduce it here.

Fr Pinsent identifies two problems which have led to our current state of affairs:

First, there has been an almost complete loss of any sense of the “drama of salvation”, namely that the eternal outcome of our lives is an open question. If you ask churchgoers today what they think happens to them when we die, many of them will say that we go to heaven, not judgment (cf Hebrews 9:27).

He is completely correct in this and puts his finger on something important. I remember once being in the Cathedral of Torcello, which boasts a huge mosaic of the Last Judgment. I was resting my weary feet while a guide explained the significance of the mosaic to some tourists. The person next to me said: “He is explaining it from the outside.” In other words, modern people look at the Last Judgement as a picture in which they themselves are not present.

But in every picture of the Last Judgement, if we look carefully, we will see ourselves depicted. This is a drama in which we will play a part, whether we like it or not. To imagine that heaven follows life on earth almost as a matter of course is to delude oneself.

Here one might add that the Church needs to tread carefully: we need to challenge people’s idea that salvation is automatic, without driving them away. We must of course stress God is Love and Mercy; but we must also stress that he is perfect Justice as well, and that in Him charity and justice coincide without any contradiction.

Fr Pinsent goes on:

Second, there has been a loss of any distinction between the life of nature and the life of grace. Much teaching and pastoral example today implies that being a Catholic is simply one way to cultivate civic virtue and good manners. What has largely been forgotten is the meaning and importance of sanctifying grace, by which we become adopted children of God, enjoying the gift of second-person relatedness to God, the ultimate fruit of which is to enter the communion of saints in heaven.

Again, I find myself in complete agreement. While it is true that religion is socially useful, we must resist all attempts to understand religion as purely a socially useful phenomenon. You become a Catholic to experience God’s grace at first hand in the sacraments, not because Catholics are a nice bunch of people, or because they have good schools. All the social and secular activities of our parishes must be subordinate to this one end – the reception of divine grace; indeed that is the only reason behind the social structures, to make the sacraments more accessible to people.

Fr Pinsent concludes:

This combination of lethargic universalism and loss of grace, aided and abetted by certain perverted theological writings of the last century, drains much of the urgency out of Catholic life and mission and cuts us off from most Christians of previous ages. Unless we recover an appreciation of such principles, I fear that even serving better coffee after Mass will not arrest the decline.

I wonder which theologians he has in mind? But of our contemporaries, let me point the finger at whoever invented the phrase “faith-based initiatives”. This implies that people have faith and so go on to found schools or hospitals. But it is the faith that matters more than the initiative. The phrase subordinates faith to socially useful works, which is dangerous. Faith matters.

This danger crops up in certain missionary ambiences, where the Church can be hugely successful in building schools, hospitals, and model farms, all great faith-based initiatives. But in the midst of this success, the missionaries can lose sight of what it was they came for: not any physical structure, but the proclamation of what Fr Pinsent so rightly terms “the drama of salvation”.

  • awkwardcustomer

    What am I talking about?  I live in the middle of a city where robberies at knifepoint are not uncommon.

  • karlf

    I don’t just flat out reject it, but in any form it is no answer to the very real scenario that I put to you.

  • Peter

    Just has God has put the welfare of poor nations in the hands of rich nations, so too has God put the welfare of children in hands of adults.

    Just as rich nations exploit and pillage the poor nations which they have a duty to support, so to can adults abuse and mistreat children in their care.

    Rich nations that exploit poor nations will have to answer for it, as will adults who abuse children in their care.

  • karlf

    Meanwhile children experience the most terrible, prolonged suffering while God looks on. If you hadn’t noticed already, God also doesn’t help those afflicted with terrible deformities, diseases and other afflictions, including natural disasters, animal attacks, parasites etc etc.

  • JabbaPapa

    karlf : It’s quite straightforward Jabs: original sin is an archaic and erroneous attempt to explain aspects human behaviour.

    Rubbish !!!

    Original Sin is the inevitability that people will cause harm, pain, or suffering to people — whether themselves or others — and/or be subject to such harm, pain, or suffering.

  • JabbaPapa

    You made a statement.

    Yours is the burden of proof.

    (I get soooooo tired of atheists claiming that it’s always up to other people to demonstrate this or that — and NEVER them.

  • whytheworldisending

    In terms of natural life, judgement may be nearly upon us. The fire that never goes out may well apply to describe planet earth once the positive feedback loops line up to accelerate global warming beyond our previous scientifically based imaginings. The quickening ice-melt not only removes the reflective shield of white keeping the oceans from being heated by the sun’s rays, but also releases massive strores of greenhouse gases locked away in the ice over hundreds of thousands of years. What’s it got to do with religion? Well those who would be disciples of Jesus must deny themselves, and as I am told Our Lady warned, unless we do penance we will not be saved. Clearly consumerism, self-indulgence and worship of economic growth is antagonistic to the Gospel message. The most direct illustration is at the heart of the global warming problem – holidays abroad by jet. It is plane flights and not cars which makes the largest contribution to greenhouse gases, and the majority of flights are completely unecessary. We in the West think we have a right to recreational flights around the globe for our own amusement, to support football teams playing away or to sun ourselves on a foreign beach. We need to stop such nonmsense now, and limit flights to what are seriously necessary for the general good. Hopwever, our politicians cannot fail to please us or they will get kicked out, so it is not going to happen unless there is radical change. Even now Cameron is dithering over building another runway at Heathrow, when he should be reducing air travel to save the planet. As the Gospels tell us, in the parable of the foolish bridesmaids, the time will come when the door will shut anmd not open again. That time, I think is now, unless we start believing that Jesus wasn’t joking, that he wasn’t wrong, and unless we vote in politicians who also believe and can act. Selfishness pervades politics, but even they may care about the fate of their children and their children’s children, so why not campaign to enfranchise children through parental votes on their behalf? That way we may elect real people who do not put their faith in money and human power. The reality is that only God can save us – but we have to let him do so beforte the door shuts. Christians have to be able to say more to their children and to future generations (if indeed there are any) than I told you so.

  • karlf

    Don’t be such a disingenuous twerp! I am not the one claiming that God wants to listen to you. I don’t how I can believe he does, or is capable of such a thing. These are YOUR outlandish claims!

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Original Sin is the only explanation that makes true sense. 

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Thanks Awkward, and God bless for that.

  • Meena

    These nasty qualities are natural tendencies (although not inevitabilities) because human beings are primates. They are present in all primates, but most strongly developed in Man. The region of the brain which gives rise to them is also larger in Man than in other primates.

    This is a “survival of the fittest” quality, provided by raw Nature.  This is now understood, and knowledge of the true origin of these undesirable features can enable us limit their undesirable consequences.

    This contrasts with the past, when ignorance of the source of human natural aggression etc. led us to invent the concept of original sin.

  • Meena

    It makes NO SENSE at all to claim that an innocent baby is stained with sin at birth – so grave, in your Church’s teaching, that she or he can never (unless Baptised) enter into Heaven.

  • Meena

    A shocking story, and you have my sympathies and best wishes. Lightning rarely strikes again in the same place.
    What ever happened to Julius Nyerere’s dream of a United States of East Africa? 

  • Meena

    “.the theological reality of Heaven and hell and the Last Judgement”
    Does “the theological reality” mean “the actual reality”?

    If its been down-played or demoted, why was this done?

  • karlf

    Original sin is an archaic and erroneous attempt to explain aspects human behaviour. Where do you get the “cosmic” from?
    and please tell me why God wants to listen to you pray. I wish you would just give a straight answer.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    But you have a problem with this.

    It’s called free will. 

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Makes perfect sense to me. Original Sin is part of a larger story: the Incarnation, the Death and Resurrection of Christ, Salvation.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Thanks for best wishes Meena. 

    There were lots of dreams after the period of Independence, most of them utterly mad. Nyere’s being one of them.

  • C_monsta

    Free will is just an illusion. Get reading something new

  • JabbaPapa

    I am not God.

    Ask Him.

    Look up cosmic in the dictionary.

  • JabbaPapa

    Upwards and forwards Komrad !!!

  • JabbaPapa

    That is because you think that the Protestant notion of sin, the Calvinist especially, is accurate for all of Christianity.

  • aearon43

    If you’ve never actually lived with a two year old, I can assure you, they are the most perfect tyrants.

  • James

    Well said, Meena; nail on the head.

  • karlf

    You make these outlandish claims but you can’t back them up. Fantasy is probably a natural animal characteristic – not exclusive to humans.

  • Fides_et_Ratio

    Hi Mercian. I’m sorry to go completely off topic, but, since you are a fan of the SSPX:
    Do you know of the regularization process? Do you have a tentative date for the next event?
    I’m following this story with great interest.

  • John H

    At a funeral here in France where I’ve been living for the past 20 years, the Priest bagan the Ceremony by saying, “I don’t believe in a God who judges us…..” I know for a fact that the deceased was not a practising Catholic, and I’m pretty sure the Church was full of non-believers and lapsed Catholics. I honestly don’t think we even have an idea of the harm this unbiblical banter is causing.

  • Glarryb

    I know what the church teaches, but I do not and cannot believe in everlasting hell. It makes no sense. I believe in judgment and punishment. From what I hear a lot of people believe the same. I know Judaism does not believe in everlasting punishment.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Then you do not believe the words of Christ, who spoke of hell, the devil and everlasting death more than He spoke about anything else. 

  • StFirmin

    The situation of many Catholics and Christians in general believing erroneously concerning Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgement (the traditional “Four Last Things”) can be remedied by good catechesis. One excellent resource is the newly-translated-into-English conferences of Fr. Charles Arminjon given at Chambery Cathedral in 1880. The book is The End of the Present World and The Mysteries of the Future Life, translated by Susan Conroy & Peter McEnerny, and published by Sophia Institute Press, ISBN 978-1-933184-38-8. It is faith-stirring and deeply challenging. I highly recommend it.

  • Meena

    I’ve lived with four 2 year olds.

    But “I want and I want NOW!” is nothing to do with sin. Does it really change if they have been baptised, or not?

    Mothercare should investigate any evidence you might have. You could become very rich you know.

  • Meena

    I understood (your idea of) sin to be disobedience to (of) God.

  • karlf

    Indeed. But Jabba prefers the ancient, primitive explanations for human behaviour – maybe he could rename sexual drives as ‘original naughtiness’ or something?

  • Tennisrjb

    You lost me after the first two paragraphs.
    How about this.
    Would you take a blind child to disney world ?

  • John

     Could anyone comment on the so called Near Death Experience stories which unanimously seem to testify to the afterlife being almost exclusively positive for 90% of those involved and that hell was a temporary condition created by one’s own negative character rather than an eternal place?

  • JabbaPapa

    Anyone experiencing Hell as a permanent state of damnation is someone who has by definition died ; not someone who has had a Near Death Experience.

  • JabbaPapa

    The more ancient an primitive explanations are in fact the pagan ones that you espouse.

  • JabbaPapa

    That’s just a gloss.

  • JabbaPapa

    Well, summer holidays are over, so I’d guess that there might be some more movement starting this month — but to answer you, no, no dates whatsoever for the future continuance of the whole process are known.

  • karlf

    Such as? My explanations are based on observable evidence – not ancient superstitious mumbo jumbo

  • tgliang

    What Fr. Pinset says is more than interesting.  He is right.  

  • JabbaPapa

    You make these outlandish claims

    What “outlandish claims” ??

    I am not, in fact, God.

    The word cosmic is, in fact, defined in dictionaries of the English language.

    The doctrine of Original Sin is in fact accurately described by my statement.

  • JabbaPapa

    Such as your constant references to sexual urges for example, and other crass materialisms as constituting the sole horizon of your philosophy.

  • Peter

     It is true that some parishes are more like social centres rather than focussing on sanctifying grace.   However, any sanctifying grace acquired thorugh the sacraments will be lost if we ignore the poor.

    Even if parishes prioritise the bestowment of sanctifying grace on the faithful by focussing on sacramental life as opposed to socila life, all that grace will be lost if the parish as a community chooses to ignore the poorest and most in need.

    It is not enough for a parish to focus on the sacraments alone; they also have a duty to provide help to the poorest without which no-one can be saved.

    Why doesn’t the Church teach this glaring truth?

  • karlf

    I don’t think I do make constant reference to sexual urges (or “original naughtiness” as you might like to call it?). How is sex particularly pagan? Don’t you have sexual urges Jabba – like any other mammalian animal does?
    The trouble with people like you is that you cannot comprehend that your consciousness is solely produced the brain. And the human vanity that our minds, unlike other creatures, must have been given special, supernatural properties.

  • karlf

    To claim that you communicate with God is outlandish

  • Ronk

     “exclusively positive”?
    The general story told is along the lines “I saw a brilliant Light, I was drawn towards its warmth and love, but then I was told I had to go back  as it wasn’t my time yet.”

    In other words, these people did not go to Heaven, they saw Christ from a distance only. When each of us truly dies he will approach into Christ’s very presence and face His judgment, then he will be in the full presence of the Light and if he is in a state of grace, he will enter into it (though it may be painful as it burns away what is unclean in him) but if he is not in a state of grace, he will not be able to tolerate the Light and will go (willingly) to Hell.

    As further evidence, most if not all of those who have reported a Near Death experince have afterwards greatly reformed their behaviour and religious practice. They don’t seem to have concluded that they will be going to Heaven no matter what they do.

  • Ronk

     One school of Jews may believe that. “Judaism” most certainly believes in eternal punishment for the wicked.

  • JabbaPapa

    It is not enough for a parish to focus on the sacraments alone; they
    also have a duty to provide help to the poorest without which no-one can
    be saved.

    Why doesn’t the Church teach this glaring truth?

    Because it isn’t one ?

    Most parishes are in fact very impoverished themselves, and have not the wherewithal to help anyone at all.

  • JabbaPapa

    To claim that you communicate with God is outlandish

    I have never claimed any such thing.