‘I believe in life everlasting’ from the perspective of the encyclical ‘Spe salvi’
Cardinal Stanislaw Nagy, SCJ
The encyclical ‘Spe salvi’ is an exceptional treasury of the essentials of the Christian truth. The main theme of this truth, which the encyclical discusses, is Christian hope together with its versions, the so-called big and small hope. But apart from this, or rather in connection with this key theme, the encyclical also discusses the group of Christian subjects, which has been coherent, closed in the chapter of theological discourse that is classically known as ‘about ultimate matters’ or ‘life everlasting’ (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, part I, article 12, paragraph I-VI), commencing with death through the Last Judgement to hell, purgatory and heaven. The meaning of these issues is both solemn and complicated. The encyclical deals with these subjects as important elements, as the premise of the Christian teaching about the virtue of Christian hope, being its direct consequence and the ultimate culmination of man’s life.
The issue of hope in the encyclical ‘Spe salvi’ is a valuable perspective for a deepened, cheerful and fresh interpretation of this essential foundation of the Christian Creed. Because of that it is worth reflecting on this important document, i.e. the encyclical, worthy for Christian life.
Theological content of the article ‘I believe in life everlasting’
Death puts an end to human life, measured by time and the rhythm of earthiness. It is a border point of human fate. This moment, still in time and earthy space, is understood from the Christian angle as ‘the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ’ (art. 12). Therefore, it is entering a new dimension of existence, which begins with the particular judgement, i.e. specific summary of life that has just ended in the space of time and earthiness. It will be completed by the Last Judgement connected with the Second Coming of Christ at the end of times (cf. Matthew 25: 14-46; 18, 23-35). Consequently, the fate of man in the new dimension of existence, free from passing and marked with eternity, will follow three possibilities: heaven, purgatory and hell. The first one is full happiness. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church it is ‘mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description’ (1027).
The second way of entering eternity is ‘the final purification or purgatory’. It is the state of ‘all who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation’ (1030). ‘After death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.’ The third deeply moving possibility of man’s existence after death – as the Catechism states briefly – is ‘the state of definitive self- exclusion from communion with God and the blessed, called "hell" (1033). According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church this is the Catholic teaching ‘I believe in life everlasting’ summarised in a succinct way. And how does Benedict XVI present this important article of faith in his encyclical?
Eschatology through the prism of ‘Spe salvi’
As it has been already mentioned the encyclical looks at the subject of eternal life as a foundation, some partly conditioned construction of the doctrine of virtue of hope or as its glorious and successful culmination. In this perspective the encyclical tries to define what true hope is in the light of biblical passages and the Tradition (No. 2-10). This subject is continued in No. 10-12, together with the problem of death and eternity. The problem of death starts with the question Eternal life – what is it? And the Pope gives realistic answers that ‘What they [people] desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life’ (No. 10). Consequently, ‘death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible.’ How can we not admire the longing of contemporary man who postpones the truth about God and the existence of eternal life beyond the horizon of his life! The geniality of the modern interpretation of death is seen in that paradox ‘to live always, without end – this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable.’ And the genial sequence is completed by quoting St Ambrose’s words ‘immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.’ The encyclical connects the problem of death with the problem of eternity and its happy solution – heaven. The encyclical combines these two issues in such a beautiful way that we cannot comment on it but should simply quote the papal words: ‘eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality – this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time – the before and after – no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy’ (No 12). We can also conclude here. Our concern is heaven but how deeply and briefly it is described! The thorough analysis of the encyclical focuses on two further elements of man’s life after death, i.e. when he enters eternity. We mean the intermediate state between full happiness, and consequently achieving full communion in man’s love with God, and the state of ultimate failure of man, which is condemnation. This state is defined by the classical term ‘purgatory’. The starting point for this subject is the statement that ‘For the great majority of people – we may suppose – there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil...What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge?’ (46) A partial answer is given in the statement ‘our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love (47). Therefore, there is ‘an intermediate state’, which ‘matures the soul for communion with God’ (45). The teaching about the ‘intermediate state’, which is purgatory, is completed by the clear reference to the Old Testament ‘one can help the deceased in their intermediate state through prayer’ (48). The New Testament adds the Eucharist and almsgiving (48). The encyclical presents the third state in a detailed and brief way, the tragic state of man’s entering into eternity, i.e. eternal condemnation – hell. ‘There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought... In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell ‘(45). This is terrifying in its tragic logic and definite tragic end. The facts, described with astonishing clearness but harmonized with the climate of contemporary man’s life, show human fate when man assuredly enters the mystery of the dimension of eternity. It is decisively conditioned by the event marked in Christ’s teaching, which is the necessary account of your whole life with God’s participation (cf. 42). The encyclical focuses on the common conviction of the need to give an account of your whole life. The final chapter of the encyclical, which unambiguously entitled ‘Judgement as a setting for learning and practising hope’, deals with this issue. The title stresses, apart from other problems, the fundamental conviction of the healthy thinking part of mankind, the interesting example quoted by the encyclical being the view of the contemporary and important Frankfurt School (cf. 42). The encyclical discusses two aspects of this big and logical need of the general account of man’s behaviour on earth. First, it polemicizes with the view that the problem of justice cannot be brought together with the idea of God, God who loves man (cf. 42). Having stated that purely human attempts to administer definite justice have been bound to fail he is powerfully and deeply convinced that justice can be truly and fully realized in the Christian article of faith, included in the term ‘the Last Judgement’. ‘Faith in the Last Judgement is first and foremost hope – the need for which was made abundantly clear in the upheavals of recent centuries (nr 43). This statement points to the obvious connection with the article about the Last Judgement but it explicitly stresses its obviousness and outstanding place in the Christian Creed. It is worth noticing the last phrase ‘I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life.’ (43)
One would like to be tentatively in favour of the complete rightness of this observation. Since there is a problem of final execution of justice concerning outrageous harm and acts of violence against the weak and innocent caused by those who avoided punishment for their deeds done during their lives. Only God the Creator, the eternal Lord of all mankind, can create justice (cf. 44). Referring to the Last Judgement the encyclical discusses subtly another problem, namely the problem of justice and grace as well as feeling of deep fear and uplifting hope (cf. 46-47). It is difficult to discuss these rich texts briefly and up to the point. Therefore, I want to refer you to their interpretation in the encyclical.
The text is a humble attempt to present what the important papal document states about this essential article of faith, which is the foundation of the ultimate truths concerning human fate. As an attempt it cannot discuss all elements of this subject included in the encyclical. One should complete it by reading the full text of the encyclical. Moreover, one must loyally state that certain passages I quoted were taken from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And finally, the above-mentioned organic connection of hope, analysed by the encyclical, with the overwhelming problem of Christian hope is obvious. The connection in question has two tightly linked versions of the obvious premise leading to present the key theme and to its logical culmination. We can conclude that the first version is presented by the teaching of the Last Judgement, which is not devoid of holy horror, and the second – the truth about its ultimate consequences, connected with entering into the sphere of eternity. Whether it is a right suggestion let it be judged by a deep, although not free of difficulties, personal encounter with the beautiful text of the encyclical ‘Spe salvi’.