Coming in Glory

Chapter 8

The Four Last Things
(1) Death and Judgement

The end of mortal life is its distillation into an essence of lasting value, a product of significance that epitomizes the permanent value of the years spent on earth. The power that gives life is also the one that begins the process of our death. Death is to be seen not so much as a finite event in which we suddenly and inexorably give up the life of the body, as one in which the slow process of maturation and fruition culminates in the presentation of the personality to our Creator as a work finally consummated. The last words of Christ on the cross are traditionally cited as "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46, quoted in turn from Psalm 31:5). We erect the spiritual body that will serve us in the intermediary realms of the afterlife while we are engaged in mundane activity: its bricks and mortar consist of our deeds, thoughts and attitudes as we go unobtrusively about our daily business. If we have no spiritual reserves, there will be little in the way of a spiritual body to accompany us in the world beyond death. These resources are the capital we have expended in service to our fellow creatures, who in turn will be there to greet us when we make the great transition.

It is a truth held in common by the spiritually aware of all the great religious traditions that we should remember God especially as we prepare to make the journey to the afterlife. If, however, we pay scant attention to the things of the spirit while all is going well with us, we will be in no frame of mind to call on the divine name when we are in a situation of extremity. On the contrary, the shock of our sudden danger and the terror of the unknown fate ahead of us are more likely to precipitate within us a state of helpless confusion and distraught fear. It is in this context that the story of Joseph and Pharaoh has its most universal significance: we, like the Egyptians, must conserve our stocks of produce during the years of prosperity, by the assiduous practice of prayer and good works, so that when the time of hardship befalls us, we may be able to fall back on our accumulated spiritual reserves. It is decidedly late in the day to think about God for the first time only when death approaches; fortunately, even then, there is hope for us provided we are truly penitent and sincere in our quest for truth.

The centre of our identity is the soul. It is God's gift to us, and his presence is immanent in the spirit. While the soul is in one respect merely the product of the life of a newly conceived embryo, it also seems to have an eternal life in the mind of God. Jeremiah was told that God knew him before he was formed in his mother's womb (Jeremiah 1:5). God knew him for his own, and he was consecrated before his birth, appointed to be a prophet to the nations. And so it may well be that our essence has an immortal quality, existing in God from the beginning of creation to the ultimate consummation of all things in Christ at the time of his final coming among us. The centre of the soul, the spirit, where God's presence lies, but so often ignored and disregarded, goes back to God at the time of our death. But what have we done with that spirit during our tenure of earthly life? This is, in effect, a variation on the theme of the formation of the spiritual body. We cannot know the answer to this sombre question while we are alive in the flesh. If we confidently believe we have enriched God's great gift to us during our period of incarnation, we may be sadly disillusioned when we approach the moment of judgement. How confidently did the Pharisee present himself in front of God in the temple, so sure that his piety had afforded him a place of honour in God's esteem and future favour! How aware, by contrast, was the publican of his own worthlessness! He seemed to have done nothing good with the spirit God had given him: his life appeared to be a total disaster.

And yet it was he, rather than the self-assured religious man, who was in right relationship with God, because he laid himself on the altar. In the words of Psalm 51, "Thou hast no delight in sacrifice; if I brought thee an offering, thou wouldst not accept it. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a wounded heart, O God, thou wilt not despise" (verses 16-17). As the rabbis taught, God wants the heart. This means the authentic soul-quality of the person illuminated with passion and consummated in love. The spirit that infused our earliest strivings during our time in our mother's womb is enriched by our experience in this fascinating mortal life that seems to be punctuated with so much hardship and anxiety. As we read in Psalm 90, "All our days go by under the shadow of thy wrath; our years die away like a murmur. Seventy years is the span of our life, eighty if our strength holds; the hurrying years are labour and sorrow, so quickly they pass and are forgotten" (verses 9-10). The wrath of God of which the Psalmist speaks is the law by which all things are made, sustained and destroyed. It is wrath only if it is resisted selfishly, but if it is accepted it becomes the way of growth of the soul into the knowledge of eternity. "The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul. The Lord's instruction never fails, and makes the simple wise" (Psalm 19:7). When we have come through the hard probationary period of suffering and diminishment, we will find ourselves at the heavenly footstool, accepted and renewed beyond all our wildest hopes. "Well done, my good and trusty servant! You have proved trustworthy in a small way; I will now put you in charge of something big", as we read in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30).

The spirit that Jesus gave back to his Father as he expired on the cross had achieved mighty works of teaching and healing while it was incarnate: water had been turned into wine, and enormous miracles of supply had been performed. And yet it was by no means certain that Jesus had succeeded in what he had come to earth to achieve. His mission seemed to have ended on a note of dismal failure: once more the forces of evil appeared to have triumphed. I do not believe that the crucified Lord had any conception of the glory ahead of him. But God the Father received his spirit that had been immeasurably enriched by his life and ministry among men. The resurrection was the direct sequel to this mighty death in agony and uncertainty. Love is its own fruit; it looks for nothing outside itself, giving of itself without reserve even to death for its friend, who, in the context of Christ, is everyman. As St Paul puts it, "On the human level he was born of David's stock, but on the level of the Spirit - the Holy Spirit - he was declared Son of God by a mighty act in that he rose from the dead" (Romans 1:3-4). The miracle of the resurrection, conveyed so wonderfully in the Gospels by the incredulous joy of the disciples, seems to be echoed by Jesus' own breathless delight as he shows himself to them. It was all so very unpremeditated, and this despite Jesus' prior teaching about the necessity of his death among sinners as the precursor to his rising to renewed life on the third day. The spirit he committed into the hands of his Father has indeed been enriched beyond all measure, and it was able to effect a complete bodily resurrection of a type outside the bounds of human comprehension, but nevertheless an earnest of the total resurrection of matter at the end of time.

When we die, we likewise will have to render to God an account of our spiritual journey on earth. If we approach the divine presence boasting of the wealth we had gained or the personal success we had achieved in our particular work or profession, we will find ourselves very poorly received. Nor can the dropping of important names or the citation of works of learning that we have left behind help us appreciably in the piercing scrutiny ahead of us. None of these things is in itself without value in our personal and spiritual growth so long as we enrich whatever we possess and whomsoever we encounter while we are functioning on earth. But as a means of self-identification, let alone self-commendation, they are objects of illusion; they will have dropped away from us even before the moment of transition. What alone remains with us at that critical time is the identity of the soul together with all it has learned emotionally and intellectually during its period of experience in the physical body. Its measure of attainment is its area of self-giving, and to its amazed delight it will find itself the centre of a vast concourse of friends in the greater life beyond death. Some of these it will have known in earthly life, but many more will be the members of the communion of saints unknown to it on a purely personal level. Indeed, the words of the Magnificat will ring especially true then: "The arrogant of heart and mind he has put to rout, he has brought down monarchs from their thrones, but the humble have been lifted high. The hungry he has satisfied with good things, the rich sent empty away" (Luke 1:51-53).

As we have sown love in our personal relationships on earth, so will we be greeted with love by a vast multitude in the world beyond death. The reverse also holds true: the selfish, predatory type of person will have few to meet him, indeed he may be quite alone. This will be his judgement and his introduction to hell. In the somewhat enigmatic parable of the unjust steward, Jesus advises us to use our worldly wealth to win friends for ourselves, so that when money is a thing of the past we may be received into an eternal home (Luke 16:9). This appears to mean that it is our place to involve ourselves in the full workings of the world, sordid as it so frequently is, and to make relationships with a vast range of people, as Jesus did in his work among sinners whom the devout of his time would not touch, let alone befriend. When we die, any veneer of propriety we may disport, including our association with vogue trends in world affairs will be an episode behind us, a thing of the past. We will be judged by what we are in ourselves. God wants the heart: in the gathering dusk it is our charity that alone affords the light that guides us towards our place of reception. That light is also the measure of judgement ahead of us. It is only when Christ rules our hearts that we can become involved with all types of people, lifting them up to God as Jesus did in his work with those who were open to his love. That love emanates as a pure light that leads all those we once knew to the eternal life beyond death. Some may have indeed preceded us in the great journey ahead of us all, but our spiritual light will have guided them even in realms we yet have to traverse in our own experience.

The judgement ahead of us is presided over by God, but the jury comprises our fellow beings now inhabiting the realms of the afterlife. It is important to remember that eternity includes our life on earth no less than the life of the soul after physical death. We know eternity now if we lead an active spiritual life of prayer and worship amid our duties and calling, hour by hour. We are indeed preparing for the hour of our death while we are vigorously alive in the world by remembering God constantly in prayer and practising right relationships with all those in our vicinity; in the end these include the entire created order, since we are all parts of the one Body whose name is Christ. At the seat of judgement we will be aware of the person of Christ, perhaps for the first time. In his presence we will wilt before his holiness, even though his nature is one of unfailing forgiveness and healing. He will receive us with kindness, and then send us about our business firmly and decisively. But how will we recognize him, for he is no longer known as a discrete person? We will know him by the atmosphere of love, light and power that he emanates: his is absolute authority and grace. This atmosphere marks his presence, reminding us of the statement in John 4:24, "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth."

Even when Jesus revealed himself at the period of the resurrection he was no longer recognizable as he had been before his death: he was seen as an anonymous gardener by Mary Magdalene, a fisherman by the apostles and a visionary stranger by those journeying to Emmaus. It was only by some word or gesture that he revealed himself incontestably to his disciples. Since the time of his ascension, he comes to all of us as a mystical presence when we are capable of receiving him. In this way we are preserved from the temptation of reducing him to a form that we can possess and control. Instead, he can raise us up above the limits of circumscribed personality to an identity that includes all people, indeed eventually the entire created order. He comes to us as an atmospheric presence to lift us out of our blind immersion in matter to a vision of the glory that transfigures all material substance into spiritual radiance. In this way we are freed, albeit for a short time only, from the shackles of mortality so that we may enter upon the liberty and splendour that is our destiny as children of God (to quote freely from Romans 8:21). As we attain this glory, so we bring the universe itself with us, until the time of the general resurrection when all matter is spiritualized, when all that exists returns to God, transfigured by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In this respect, how will we recognize our loved ones in the intermediate realms beyond death? There will be no physical body, and although it may be possible for the spiritual body we have fashioned during earthly life to condense sufficiently to assume an opacity that may delineate the contours of the form we once possessed, this appearance, or apparition, will not indicate our real identity. It is to be seen rather as a consolation to the bereaved who are psychically sensitive; in it they may be assured of the continued presence of their loved one. But our true being is manifested in the soul presence that we continue to register after physical death. Indeed, it is the soul that is the seat of our true identity even while we are alive in the flesh; by contrast, the physical body undergoes a constant change. The bodily configuration of our youth bears scant likeness to our physical form in middle life and especially to the shrunken features of old age. But the soul that witnesses the changing scene of bodily growth and senescence remains intact. To be sure, it should grow in compassion and wisdom with the years of earthly experience behind it, but its unique flavour is not disguised, let alone annulled, at least if we are attempting to live an honourable life in relationship with God and our fellow creatures. When we die, this soul that animated the physical body when we were alive in the flesh is now completely bare. No longer can it remain hidden behind the coarse opacity of the body of flesh and bones we inhabit in this world. Instead, it shows itself naked and unadorned, and as such is recognized by all who knew it in its earthly limitation. As in the instance of Christ among us, whose presence is that of an incandescent radiance and a warm invitation to holiness, to dine with him as host at the heavenly banquet, so we ourselves also show our true nature by what we have established and attained spiritually during our life on earth. If we had the discernment to know a person in his full integrity, we would have the ability to glimpse the soul that revealed itself, however unobtrusively, in the course of his incarnate existence. This is the true knowledge of the self; it is incontrovertible, for it lies within and does not depend on the circumstances of the outside world.

It is no accident that people of sanctity are encompassed by an emanation of unearthly radiance which has been depicted unerringly by the great painters of the past who still had an inner eye for such details of spirituality; the inner vision was projected to an outer physical manifestation as the mind informed the visual apparatus of the brain and eye. This radiance is the undistorted light of the Holy Spirit that pours out from a soul that is empty of guile and therefore a pure chalice of divine grace. By contrast, unwholesome people with great charm and psychic presence can appear to be invested by a glitter that may serve to beguile and confuse those who are spiritually inexperienced and who judge by superficial appearances. Unlike the light of sanctity that seems to transfigure the whole person, the glitter that plays on the less worthy person is superficial and does not illuminate him so much as outline his character.

It would seem that this light also finds its origin in the Holy Spirit, from whom all light proceeds. He is defined credally as the lord and giver of life. But those whose wills are perverted, who have offered themselves, however unobtrusively, to the guidance of demonic forces, manipulate and deflect the power of the Holy Spirit. This power then becomes interior and a private force of self-assertiveness. It indeed enters into the life of the individual, becoming, with him, sequestered, increasingly isolated, and cut off from the full flow of life. It serves the personality of the one who misuses it, but as a consequence he becomes progressively separated from his neighbours. This is the way in which naked evil becomes established and flourishes in its destructive power. It is, however, slowly isolated from the world before its final, inevitable destruction. All this, dimly intelligible to those who are spiritually aware on this side of death, becomes increasingly clear to those no longer encumbered by a mortal body and existing as a delicate soul structure functioning in a spiritual body of varying completeness.

A soul of high stature is so transparent that the divine presence within it is fully apparent to the world: it is one with God. This state of affairs is fully applicable to Christ, but when we shed all mundane encumbrances even now and live in pure simplicity in the present moment, we too can start to become the agents, albeit unconscious of our role, of lifting up in a most amazing way all that lies around us to the very presence of God himself. This is in fact a most significant aspect of the judgement: do we remain in a state of darkness, such as characterizes the faces of so many of our compatriots, or is there the radiance of celestial light illuminating our inner being and shining from us to the world around us? This light is our lantern, guiding us to the place prepared ahead of us. At the same time it reveals our unique presence to the vast concourse of persons, saint and sinner alike, both with us in the flesh and in the greater world beyond death. The spiritual body that is being fashioned while we are alive on earth is composed of soul substance: the soul becomes increasingly diaphanous as the spiritual body increases in substance. The whole unit is infused by the Holy Spirit, and its content is progressively transfigured until it becomes an unobstructed channel for the light of God, a flawless instrument of God's grace.

By contrast, the spiritually debased person whose life has rotated around an axis of unashamed self-seeking, of heedless selfishness, is inwardly opaque. The black opacity renders him unresponsive and impenetrable to God's grace, because he has never sacrificed anything of himself to the world around him, indeed to any living form outside himself. It is in this frame of understanding that we can glimpse some deeper implications of the Parable of the Rich Man (Dives) and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The man of wealth and heedless self-indulgence has a soul so dark that it cannot be illuminated by any spark of recognition, let alone compassion, for his fellow creatures. It is therefore also beyond the possibility of infusion by the light of God. This is the nature of the gulf that separates him from the beggar, now lying in rest in heaven. The darkness of soul cannot be expunged simply by a cry for help, or even a sincere regret for the past and a desire to save his brothers from a similar fate. Like the nine lepers who, having been healed by Jesus, did not so much as turn back and give thanks to God for their marvellous recovery (Luke 17:11-19), it is all too probable that the rich man in hell would equally rapidly have dismissed from his memory his present circumstances, had they been summarily reversed. For him to become converted sincerely to God and effect an amendment of life, some greater commitment than mere remorse would be necessary before there would be any chance of his tasting the divine mercy. To know the mercy of God which sustains us each day requires of us in turn a self-giving approach to life. This self-giving is an attitude of blessing to all around us, made tangible by acts of love. This attitude, on the one hand, is our response to God's unfailing love towards us - we love because he loved us first - but it requires of us an attention to God so absolute that we have left our own desires behind us. Once in this manner we are open to God for himself alone, without the dark diversion of subversive thoughts of personal advantage, we are in a state to receive the divine grace. This self-yielding, which is the key to openness, will eventually attain that perfect knowledge of love in which we are prepared to give up our life for our friend - who, in the reality of God, is everyman.

Applying this sequence to the rich man in hell, in Jesus' parable, he would have to face the necessity of a total sacrifice of himself, with the possibility of total extinction, before there could be an authentic cleansing of his soul from darkness. Only when, like Abraham who was ready to give up Isaac to God, the rich man showed himself prepared for the ultimate sacrifice, would the miracle of God's grace have descended upon him. His life would have been renewed, the gulf bridged so that the Holy Spirit could work freely in him, and a disposition to holiness established that would have influenced many others besides the rich man himself. The immutable law of cause and effect which mirrors God's constant vigilance and justice cannot be set aside to suit our convenience. But if, in the suffering that our evil actions have brought down upon us, we can withstand all overt rebuffs to our constant pleas for mercy and persist in an attitude of humble penitence, the time will come when our souls will have opened sufficiently to receive God's love. That divine love never fails, but we have to be ready to receive it. When we do receive it in the depths of our being, we are changed as people, and at last start to do the work ahead of us from our present vantage point. This becomes our place of destiny from which we move in the direction of our final destination.

The judgement of God which is enacted in the attitudes of those around us in the dimension of the afterlife is final, but the consequences of that judgement, the punishment that derives from it, have a dynamic thrust. They tend towards our healing, they redeem us from the bondage of past wrongful attitudes and tend towards our reinstatement in the larger existence ahead of us. What is needed of us in an unstinting dedication to the world in which we now function. The punishment is not unending unless we choose to make it so, but the responsibility for our inadequate past life cannot be evaded or shifted on to those around us. The way towards amendment of life starts with an unclouded awareness of the part we have played in our own failure to live up to the high mark set before us by Christ within us. In this frame of mind the very idea of passing the blame on to the circumstances of our birth, upbringing or employment appears increasingly irrelevant, at least in an afterlife situation. We see more clearly that we are expected to grow spiritually through our misfortunes and trials. They are not here simply to be used as an excuse for antisocial behaviour and a generally wasted span of life on earth. Job's misfortunes, manfully if rebelliously borne, brought him closer to God than did all his previous devotions designed quite deliberately to appease God's wrath and curry his favour.

It is an arresting paradox that the more we take refuge in excuses, the further away do we move from our fundamental integrity. It is far more praiseworthy to confront our weakness directly, even triumphantly. Jacob, not a particularly saintly man, stood his ground when he was attacked by a heavenly presence: Jacob would not let him go until he had obtained a blessing from him. As a result he attained a heightened spirituality symbolized in his change of name to Israel: one who has shown strength with God and is subsequently to be a champion of God. Thus Jacob transcends his previous self-centredness, and assumes the stature of a patriarch. In a somewhat different context Job, too, stood up for his integrity; in fact he had little to repent of in the vision of the soul. And in the end he gained the unexpected reward of seeing God in as close an intimacy as is permitted mortal flesh.

As we are able to accept suffering and integrate its fruits into our lives, without resentment on the one hand or evasion on the other, so we prove ourselves adequate for the great work lying ahead of us. Our very failings can make us lovable when they are faced with courage and given to God on the altar as a sacrifice. The afterlife scene, far from being a place of finality and rest, is one of unceasing activity for the sake of the world and all that dwells in it.

Chapter 9
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