BRIDGEPORT—“The Catholic life is a hard one to live in but a great one to die in,” said Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., as he opened his lecture on death, judgment, heaven and hell to a group gathered at the Catholic Center last Saturday morning. A distinguished professor of philosophy at Boston College, Kreeft shared beliefs and anecdotes associated with the Catholic understanding of death in his talk entitled “The Last Things,” which was co-sponsored by The Leadership Institute and Catholic Cemeteries and presented in conjunction with the revised Funeral Norms of the Diocese of Bridgeport.
In discussing the preparation for and process of death and dying, Kreeft said that everyone yearns to know how to get to heaven, but that the answer is very simple: trusting in God. “If you know Him, you know everything,” he said. “It is there in heaven that you’ll meet God face to face. He will deliver you from all your sufferings.”
As the author of over 80 books on Christian philosophy and apologetics, Kreeft believes that death gives us individuality, our own identity and role within the life we have on Earth. Paraphrasing author C.S. Lewis, this convert to Catholicism said, “We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. If we don’t hatch, we can’t go to heaven.”
To guide his listeners in understanding this complicated matter, Kreeft shared his interpretation of the five faces of death: the enemy from whom we are tempted to look away, the stranger who we try to avoid, the friend who frames our lives, the mother who gives us life and the lover who gives us meaning.
“As the last face of death, the lover is the golden chariot coming to fetch us to take us to His castle forever,” said Kreeft, adding that we must see life on Earth as just the beginning. He reminded the attendees of St. Augustine’s famous passage from Confessions: “Our heart is restless until it rests in You.”
In understanding judgment, he said, we must see it as a fundamental virtue which we are granted upon death. “We hope the vast majority of us get to heaven,” Kreeft said. “God shows us the way, but we must go through the pains of purgatory.” We would gladly exchange that arduous pain, he added, for any physical pain on Earth, but God is there with us, showing His love.
It is in hell, however, where the pains are most agonizing, for those there are tortured by the absence of God’s love. Kreeft believes hell is the loss of everything with its fearful image of fire and destruction.
“Once you understand how joyful and how loving God is,” he said, “you don’t need to be scared of the fire and the demons, just the loss of God. That is the most scary.”
While the absence of God’s love defines hell, heaven is the essence of God and our own truth, said Kreeft, though it begins here on Earth. “It is a seed – small and invisible. From that seed grows a flower, for a seed must be planted in this world to flourish in the other,” Kreeft theorized.
“In heaven, we will look back and thank God for our life on Earth,” he added. “God will say to us, ‘I was with you always on Earth.’”
Even those who have forsaken God can still can feel his presence, Kreeft said as he recounted the story of a man on his deathbed, one who identified as an atheist but who had been raised a Catholic. As a priest reminded the dying man that God created him “to know Him and love Him and to be happy with Him in this life and the next,” a realization occurred when the man said, “That’s right, isn’t it?” and in the next moment, smiled and died, a testimony to God’s great love.
“We can’t judge others’ hearts,” Kreeft said. “Perfect happiness exists in heaven, but it begins here and now.”
Following the lecture, attendees had the opportunity to partake in a question and answer session and obtain additional resources on advance directives, disposition of remains and estate planning.
(Dr. Kreeft recorded a summary of his talk. This and all resources from the morning are online at www.formationreimagined.org/funeral-norms.)