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Eschatology or the Catholic Doctrine of the Last Things
A Dogmatic Treatise
Rev. Joseph Pohle Ph.D. D.D

1. HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE DOGMA.—The Catholic dogma that the soul is judged immediately after death has passed through a long process of clarification in the minds of the faithful. There was no official definition of it by the Church until the Middle Ages.

a) In the primitive Church vague ideas were current in regard to the immediate fate of the departed.

Not to speak of the Chiliasts, the Hypnopsychites, and the Thnetopsychites, even some orthodox writers harbored erroneous notions concerning the fate of the soul after death. Thus St. Justin Martyr seems to have held that the disembodied souls enjoy a natural beatitude in the interval between death and the General Resurrection. St. Irenaeus imagined them dwelling in a sort of paradise (locus amoenitatis) distinct from Heaven. Tertullian believed that the martyrs entered into the beatific vision immediately after death. St. Hilary speaks of a temporary imprisonment (custodia) of the soul.

It would, however, be wrong to suppose that these Patristic writers erred in regard to the substance of the dogma. There are many passages in their writings which, at least virtually, inculcate the orthodox view, as when they speak of our Lord’s descent into Hell and the intercession of the saints.

b) It was the universal belief of the early Christians that the wicked go to Hell immediately after death.

The dread sentence, “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire,” was regarded as the confirmation of a previous judgment and an accentuation of the punishment imposed on both the soul and its risen body. In accordance with this ancient belief, Benedict XII defined in his dogmatic Bull “Benedictus Deus,” A. D. 1336, “that … the souls of those who depart this life in the state of mortal sin descend into Hell immediately after death and are there subject to infernal torments.” A similar passage occurs in the profession of faith submitted by the Greek Emperor Michael Palæologus at the Council of Lyons, A. D. 1274, which was embodied in the Decree of Union adopted at Florence, in 1439.

c) The clarification of ideas with regard to the fate of the just proceeded more slowly.

It was believed at an early date that the just, too, are judged immediately after death; but there was uncertainty as to whether they were forthwith admitted to the vision of the Blessed Trinity or enjoyed some inferior kind of beatitude. This uncertainty continued even after the Second Council of Lyons (1274) had declared that “the souls of the just are received immediately into Heaven.” As late as 1330 certain Franciscan theologians are said to have taught that the souls of the just enjoy the vision of Christ as man (in forma servi), but that the beatific vision of God (in forma Dei) was reserved until after the Last Judgment. It is but fair to add, however, that Wadding denies this charge against his fellow-religious. If the Franciscans really held the opinion in question, they shared their mistake with Pope John XXII, who about 1331 privately taught the same doctrine. In 1336 Pope Benedict XII, in his aforementioned Bull, defined that those who depart this life in the state of sanctifying grace “behold the divine essence intuitively and face to face.” The Council of Florence cleared away the last remaining doubt by adding the words: “They clearly behold God Himself, one and tri-une, as He is.”

2. PROOF FROM REVELATION.—Sacred Scripture teaches that the fate of every man is decided immediately after death and that the ultimate condition of the Blessed and the damned respectively is essentially the same before and after the General Resurrection.

a) Ecclus. 11:28: “It is easy before God in the day of death to reward every one according to his ways.” If God rewards every one according to his deserts “in the day of death,” He must send the souls of the just to Heaven and those of the wicked to Hell immediately after their separation from the body. This is confirmed in the parable which says that “the rich man also died, and was buried in Hell.”

St. Hilary writes: “Lazarus was carried by angels to the place prepared for the Elect in Abraham’s bosom, whereas Dives was buried forthwith in the place of punishment.” St. Gregory the Great teaches: “As beatitude causes the Elect to be glad, so, it is necessary to believe, fire torments the wicked from the day of their death.” St. John Chrysostom expresses the same thought in a striking simile: “As criminals are dragged in chains from jail to the seat of judgment, so the souls of the departed are forthwith brought before that terrible judgment seat, burdened with the various punishments due to their sins.”

b) The fate of the just is illustrated by the example of Lazarus, who “was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom” immediately after his demise, and by Christ’s promise to the good thief, “This day thou shalt be with me in paradise.” The terms “Abraham’s bosom” and “paradise,” strictly speaking, signify the limbus Patrum, but we know that since the Ascension of our Lord the limbo has made way for Heaven.

An even more convincing text is 2 Cor. 5:6 sqq.: “We know that, while we are in the body (ἐνδημοῦντες ἐν τῷ σώματι) we are absent from the Lord (ἐκδημοῦμεν ἀπὸ τοῦ κυρίου), for we walk by faith, and not by sight. But we are confident and have a good will to be absent rather from the body and to be present with the Lord.” To “be in the body” means to “walk by faith,” to “be present with the Lord,” to enjoy the beatific vision, for which the Apostle betrays such a keen desire in his Epistle to the Philippians (1:21 sqq.). The only means of attaining this end is “absence from the body,” i. e. death. Consequently, according to St. Paul, the Elect enter upon their celestial inheritance immediately after death.

The Fathers held this dogma implicitly rather than explicitly. St. Cyprian says: “What a dignity it is, and what a security, … in a moment to close the eyes with which men and the world are looked upon, and at once to open them to behold God and Christ!” The Acts of the Martyrs and many ancient liturgies testify to the belief of the primitive Church that those who lay down their lives for the true faith immediately enter into Heaven. That the early Christians held the same belief with regard to all the just is evident from the fact that they prayed to other saints besides the martyrs for their intercession in Heaven.

Incidentally it may be noted that the dogma with which we are dealing involves another, namely our Lord’s descent into Hell. After the death of Christ His soul went down into Limbo to deliver the souls of the just from the temporary punishment they were suffering, and to introduce them to the beatific vision of God. To deny that these souls now enjoy the beatific vision would involve a rejection of the dogma of Christ’s descent into Hell.








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