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The Four Last Things
Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven

" is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment...” —Hebrews 9:27
“In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin.” —Ecclesiasticus 7:40

The Catholic Church has always admonished her spiritual children to reflect often, even daily, on “the four last things”: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. For there is nothing better conceived than this powerful meditation to bring forcefully before our minds the essential purpose of life, namely, to save our souls and avoid Hell. The saints have recommended it most highly, especially the great Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus Liguori. The present little book by Fr. Martin von Cochem is a reflection on many aspects of this famous meditation, and it is construed thereby to help us with our own meditations when we approach the subject. No one could be expected to dwell upon every aspect of this book every day, but rather any one aspect of the whole subject is meat enough for a profound daily reflection on our final end. The present book is an excellent took to assist us in making this exercise regularly. The reader should realize that Father von Cochem is emphasizing in this little book God’s justice, rather than His mercy. Today, one hears almost exclusively of God’s great mercy and of His love for mankind. These qualities of our Creator are indeed true, nor, in a sense, is the emphasis on His mercy overdone, for we can never comprehend the great mercy of God nor His infinite love for man that causes Him to extend Himself continually in so many ways (for the most part, of course, only to be rejected by the majority of souls).

On the other hand, the complimentary quality of God, His infinite justice, is just as great a reality, and if we could save our souls, we all must satisfy it by repenting of and avoiding mortal sin; and if we wish to avoid Purgatory, by repenting of all sin and making amends for our unexpiated wrong-doing. What the reader should bear in mind while reading The Four Last Things is that the author has purposely concerned himself mainly with God’s justice, rather than with His mercy. Obviously, the author is cognizant of God’s mercy, but that is simply not the subject of this book. However, as a result of this emphasis, the reader should not thereby adopt a lopsided view of the task we have of saving our souls, thinking it to be impossible. Just as on the side of divine justice there are many sobering aspects to take into account, not least of which are our own weakness and perversity; nevertheless, on the side of God’s mercy, there are equal, if not in fact overwhelming, factors that give us hope of our salvation. In the 20th century alone, Our Lord has appeared to numerous mystic souls, giving messages of His infinite mercy and love—if sinners will only repent and turn to Him. Some of these privileged souls are Sr. Josefa Menendez (d. 1923), Sr. Faustina Kowalska (d. 1938), Sr. Mary of the Trinity (d. 1942), and Sr. Consolata Betrone (d. 1946). But there have been others as well. Further, the Catholic Church possesses the sublime Sacrament of Confession, whereby sinners may unburden their hears and gain forgiveness of their sins; and she also grants indulgences. Especially worthy of note are plenary indulgences, whereby a person can make expiation for all the temporal punishment due to all his sins in just one act—one plenary indulgence. Indeed, Almighty God has been merciful to an incredible degree to us poor miserable sinners.

The Four Last Things, besides focusing our attention on the principal reason we exist and our principal job in this world, is also excellent for the many somewhat “lesser-known” truths of our holy religion that it enunciates, for example, that at the hour of death the devils intensify their efforts to cause a soul to be damned. For it is then that the person is weakest—physically, mentally, emotionally and even, one might say, spiritually, because he or she could easily be in a state of confusion due to conern about unforgiven or unexpiated sins. During the healthy, mature years of our lives, therefore, it behooves us to contemplate our death and our final end, and to prepare for a happy and holy death in every way possible, realizing that at the hour of death Satan will mount his most powerful attacks and we will be in the greatest danger of losing our souls.

The author says that death is a time of confusion for all, which in one sense is very true, for did not even Our Divine Lord cry out just before expiring, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46). Death is not natural for us, and it is something we all wish to avoid. But if we rely on the help of Our Lady, surely our death will be as peaceful as possible—and many good people achieve a peaceful, holy death—yet many of the great canonized saints were terribly concerned for their eternal salvation even on their death beds—a very sobering thought.

Another little-known and almost never-mentioned truth of our religion that the author brings out is the fact that we do not know for sure if we are truly pleasing to God, i.e., whether we are actually in the state of grace and free from mortal sin, or whether we are in the state of mortal sin and worthy of Hell. And he cites Scripture to reinforce this point. Many today think that most people are in the state of grace and destined for Heaven; whereas, the catechism teaches that most adults commit mortal sins. This realization alone, that we do not know for sure if we are pleasing to God, should make everyone humble, if nothing else will. The author also touches upon the topic of whether most people are saved or damned. The predominating opinion among the great writers of the Church is that most souls are lost eternally because they do not cooperate with the graces that God makes available to men to save their souls. And they cite several indicative passages of Scripture to this effect, especially the famous passage in Matthew (Chapter 7, verses 13 & 14): “Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it!” Also, in Matthew 20:16, Our Divine Saviour boldly proclaims in the following manner: “So shall the last be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen.” And there are many other passages in Scripture to indicate this same meaning.

There are also several minor aspects of Fr. von Cochem’s book that need explanation as well: For example, he speaks about God being “angry” with us because of our sins; in fact, the Bible in many passages speaks of “the wrath of God.” However, we know from reason and we are taught by philosophy and theology that God is perfect, and as such is perfectly serene, or impassible, that is, He does not become angry as we understand it or undergo any suffering or change. Speaking as if He does is simply an anthropomorphism to express His justice with us, which takes the form of some sort of punishment sent our way. It is an allegorical manner of speaking and should always be taken as such. There are sophomoric minds who would dispense themselves from taking seriously such a sober study as this book simply because of their own puerile interpretation of such language. Those who would judge thusly do so only to the detriment of their own souls.

Fr. von Cochem calls a mortal sin “an infinite evil,” and this because it is committed against the infinite goodness of God. This is an aspect of sin we cannot fully comprehend, or even appreciate, while yet in the flesh, but it is one which we shall more fully comprehend when we see God face to face. Then he quotes Scripture to the effect, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 110:10, et al.). Now to many of the uninstructed this passage is monstrous, for they would deny that God wants us to fear Him since Jesus was “good and gentle,” “meek and humble of heart,” etc. and since this view violates the goodness and mercy of God. On the contrary, the truth is that God is so august, is so good and is so holy that when a soul begins to advance in holiness himself, he comes to an appreciation of just how good “perfect” is, as in the passage, “Be ye therefore perfect as also your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48). And the soul is fearful of not being able to satisfy the justice of God, and fearful as well of “offending” the infinite goodness of God. In any event, the burden here is on the skeptic to explain why the Bible in so many, many places uses this phrase. Also, the author mentions the famous difficulty of a rich man being saved, as enunciated by Christ: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25). Here we must understand that the “eye of the needle” was a low, narrow gate in a town’s walls left open at night for entrance to and egress from a city after the main gates had been closed. It was so small that armed men would have difficulty going through it, but for a camel to go through would be nigh impossible. At the very least it would have to be unburdened of its load, symbolic of the riches which the rich man would have to shed before he could enter into the kingdom of God. But even then a camel is too tall and too wide to have been easily squeezed through this gate—though the job was not totally impossible. The people of Our Lord’s time knew exactly what He meant, and the analogy was perfect.

Finally, the author speaks of the Resurrection of the Body at the End of Time, when all souls will be reunited with their bodies, which will be in a perfect state. In speaking of that event, he says that the soul will address the body and the body will speak to the soul. Again, this manner of speaking should be taken in the allegorical sense, for obviously bodies do not speak when they are separated from their souls. This device is simply a graphic depiction of the mind of man in dialog with itself. We all speak to ourselves when alone; we do so when we write; this is the way the mind reasons when it figures out its problems. As we are made “in the image and likeness of God” (Gen. 1:27), so we have, it would seem, like God, a three-part mental faculty that can speak back and forth to itself and also observe and evaluate the on-going conversation. In conclusion and to reiterate briefly, the great value of The Four Last Things is to bring before our minds the fact that Hell lasts for eternity, and if we should go there we shall suffer, and suffer indescribably, forever. On the other hand, Heaven also lasts for eternity, and if we go there, we shall never again want for anything—our every desire will be fulfilled. Further, the fact is that death can come at any time and after that we shall have our Particular Judgment, when our fate will be sealed for eternity. Yet the great consolation from this book is that nothing is settled yet and that we have it completely within our power to opt for God, for Heaven and for happiness—if we will just have the courage to cooperate with God’s grace and use the means He has placed at our disposal to save our souls.

Burying our spiritual heads in the sand like ostriches will not make the problem of eternal salvation go away nor take it off our own shoulders, where God has placed it. But meditating on the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell will give us a realistic and accurate understanding of the job to be accomplished by anyone who would save his soul and, by forewarning and forearming us, will the better prepare us to be successful in the only endeavor that really counts in life.
Thomas A. Nelson
October 27, 1987


On the Terrors of Death

It appears to me unnecessary to say much about the terrors of death. The subject has been sufficiently enlarged upon by various writers; besides, every one knows and feels for himself that life is sweet and death is bitter. However old a man may be, however broken in health, however miserable his circumstances, the thought of death is an unwelcome one. There are three principal reasons why all sensible people fear death so much: First, because the love of life, the dread of death is inherent in human nature. Secondly, because every rational being is well aware that death is bitter, and the separation of soul and body cannot take place without inexpressible suffering. Thirdly, because no one knows whither he will go after death, or how he will stand in the Day of Judgment. It will be well to explain the second and third of these reasons rather more fully, in order on the one hand that those who lead a careless life may perhaps be awakened thereby to a fear of death, and learn to avoid sin, and on the other that each one of us may be warned to prepare for death, lest we be overtaken by it unawares. Every one shrinks instinctively from death, because it is bitter, and painful beyond description to human nature. The soul of man is subject to many anxieties, apprehensions and sorrows, and the body is subject to pain and sickness of all kinds, yet none of these pains can be compared to the agony of death. A man who loses his good name and his property feels acute grief, but he does not die of it. All suffering and sickness, all grief and anguish, however terrible, is less bitter than death. Hence we see death to be a mighty monarch, the most cruel, the most relentless, the most formidable enemy of mankind. Look at a man wrestling with death, and you will see how the tyrant overpowers, disfigures, prostrates his victim.

Now why is death so hard, so terrible a thing? It is because the soul has to separate itself from the body. Body and soul were created for each other, and so intimate is their union that a parting between them seems almost impossible. They would endure almost anything rather than be torn asunder. The soul is fearful of the future, and of the unknown land to which she is going. The body is conscious that as soon as the soul departs from it, it will become the prey of worms. Consequently the soul cannot bear to leave the body, nor the body to part from the soul. Body and soul desire their union to remain unbroken, and together to enjoy the sweets of life.

In one of his epistles to St. Augustine, St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, relates what was told him by a man who had been raised from the dead. Amongst other things, he said: “The moment when my soul left my body, was one of such awful pain and distress that no one can imagine the anguish I then endured. If all conceivable suffering and pain were put together they would be as nothing in comparison with the torture I underwent at the separation of soul and body.” And to emphasize his words, he added, addressing St. Cyril: “Thou knowest that thou hast a soul, but thou knowest not what it is. Thou knowest that beings exist called angels, but thou are ignorant of their nature. Thou knowest also that there is a God, but thou canst not comprehend His being. So it is with everything that has not corporeal shape; our understanding cannot grasp these things. In like manner it is impossible for thee to understand how I could suffer such intense agony in one short moment.”

And if some people apparently pass away most peacefully, this is because nature, exhausted by suffering, has no longer the force to struggle with death. We know from the testimony of Our Redeemer Himself that no agony is like the agony of death. Although throughout the whole course of His sorrowful Passion, He was tortured in a terrible manner, yet all the martyrdom He endured was not to be compared with what He suffered at the moment of His death. This we gather from the Gospels. Nowhere do we find that at any period of His life the greatness of the pains He bore extorted from Our Lord a cry of anguish. But when the moment came for Him to expire, and the ruthless hand of death rent His Heart asunder, we read that He cried out with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost. Hence it is evident that at no period of the Passion did Christ suffer so acutely as at the most painful separation of His sacred soul from His blessed body.

In order that mankind might at least in some measure understand how terrible was the death Christ died for us, He ordained that we, at our dissolution, should taste something of the bitterness of His death, and experience the truth of the following words of Pope St. Gregory: “Christ’s conflict with death represented our last conflict, teaching us that the agony of death is the keenest agony that man has ever felt or will ever feel. It is the will of God that man should suffer so intensely at the close of his life, in order that we may recognize and appreciate the magnitude of Christ’s love for us, the inestimable benefit He has conferred on us by enduring death for our sakes. For it would have been impossible for man fully to know the infinite love of God, unless he too had drunk to some extent of the bitter chalice which Christ drank.”

In this passage from the writings of the holy Pope Gregory we are taught that Christ ordained that all men in the hour of their dissolution should suffer the like pains which Christ suffered for us in His last agony, in order that they may gain some knowledge, by their own experience, of the terrible nature of the death He endured for us, and the great price He paid for our ransom. How painful, how terrible, how awful death will be for us, if our death is in any degree to resemble Christ’s most agonizing death! How severe a conflict is before us poor mortals! What torments await us at our last hour! One is almost inclined to think it would have been preferable never to have been born, than to be born to suffer such anguish. But it is thus that heaven is to be won, and through this narrow gate alone can we enter into paradise. Wherefore, O Christian, accept your destiny cheerfully, and form a steadfast resolution to bear unmurmuringly the bitterness of death. For it is a great merit to yield up one’s life— the life every man loves so well—and submit with a ready and willing mind to the pangs of death. And for the purpose of encouraging you to gain merit in your last moments, let me counsel you to make the following determination to suffer death bravely.

O God of all justice, who hast ordained that since the Fall of our first parents all men should die, and also that it should be the lot of many amongst us to taste in their death something of the pains Thy Son endured at the hour of His death, I submit most willingly to this Thy stern decree. Although life is sweet to me, and death appears most bitter, yet out of obedience to Thee I voluntarily accept death with all its pains, and am ready to yield up my soul whenever, wherever, in what way or manner soever it may please Thy divine providence to appoint. And since Thou hast made death so bitter to man, in order that we may feel to a certain extent by our own experience how painful a death Thy beloved Son underwent for our sakes, I willingly accept the penalty of death, that I may at least at my latter end know something of the pains my blessed Lord suffered on my account. In honor, therefore, of His bitter Passion and death, I now cheerfully subject myself to whatever sufferings I may be called upon to pass through at the moment of my departure, and declare my determination to bear them with all the constancy of which I am capable. I pray that this resolution on my part may be pleasing in Thy sight, and that Thou wilt give me grace to bear my last agony with patience. Amen.

Taken from The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven by TAN Books & Publishers, Inc.

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