ARTICLE XII : “LIFE EVERLASTING”
Importance Of This Article
The holy Apostles, our guides, thought fit to conclude the Creed, which is the summary of our faith, with the Article on eternal life: first, because after the resurrection of the body the only object of the Christian’s hope is the reward of everlasting life; and secondly, in order that perfect happiness, embracing as it does the fullness of all good, may be ever present to our minds and absorb all our thoughts and affections.
In his instructions to the faithful the pastor, therefore, should unceasingly endeavour to light up in their souls an ardent desire of the promised rewards of eternal life, so that whatever difficult duties he may inculcate as a part of the Christian’s life, the faithful may look upon as light, or even agreeable, and may yield a more willing and cheerful obedience to God.
As many mysteries lie concealed under the words which are here used to declare the happiness reserved for us, they are to be explained in such a manner as to make them intelligible to all, as far as each one’s capacity will allow.
The faithful, therefore, are to be informed that the words, life everlasting, signify not only continuance of existence, which even the demons and the wicked possess, but also that perpetuity of happiness which is to satisfy the desires of the blessed. In this sense they were understood by the lawyer mentioned in the Gospel when he asked the Lord our Saviour: What shall I do to possess everlasting life? as if he had said, What shall I do in order to arrive at the enjoyment of perfect happiness? In this sense these words are understood in the Sacred Scriptures, as is clear from many passages.
The supreme happiness of the blessed is called by this name (life everlasting) principally to exclude the notion that it consists in corporeal and transitory things, which cannot be everlasting. The word blessedness is insufficient to express the idea, particularly as there have not been wanting men who, puffed up by the teachings of a vain philosophy, would place the supreme good in sensible things. But these grow old and perish, while supreme happiness is to be terminated by no lapse of time. Nay more, so far is the enjoyment of the goods of this life from conferring real happiness that, on the contrary, he who is captivated by a love of the world is farthest removed from true happiness; for it is written: Love not the world, nor the things which are in the world. If any man love the world, the charity of the Father is not in him, and a little farther on we read: The world passeth away, and the concupiscence thereof.
The pastor, therefore, should be careful to impress these truths on the minds of the faithful, that they may learn to despise earthly things, and to know that in this world, in which we are not citizens but sojourners, happiness is not to be found. Yet even here below we may be said with truth to be happy in hope, if denying ungodliness and worldly desires, we . . . live soberly, and justly, and godly in this world, looking for the blessed hope and coming of the glory of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ. Very many who seemed to themselves wise, not understanding these things, and imagining that happiness was to be sought in this life, became fools and the victims of the most deplorable calamities.
These words, life everlasting, also teach us that, contrary to the false notions of some, happiness once attained can never be lost. Happiness is an accumulation of all good without admixture of evil, which, as it fills up the measure of man’s desires, must be eternal. He who is blessed with happiness must earnestly desire the continued enjoyment of those goods which he has obtained. Hence, unless its possession be permanent and certain, he is necessarily a prey to the most tormenting apprehension.
The intensity of the happiness which the just enjoy in their celestial country, and its utter incomprehensibility to all but themselves alone, are sufficiently conveyed by the very words blessed life. For when in order to express any idea we make use of a word common to many things, it is clear that we do so because we have no exact term by which to express it fully. Since, therefore, to express happiness, words are adopted which are not more applicable to the blessed than to all who are to live for ever, this proves to us that the idea presents to the mind something too great, too exalted, to be expressed fully by a proper term. True, the happiness of heaven is expressed in Scripture by a variety of other words, such as the kingdom of God, of Christ, of heaven, paradise, the holy city, the new Jerusalem, my Father’s house; yet it is clear that none of these appellations is sufficient to convey an adequate idea of its greatness.
The pastor, therefore, should not neglect the opportunity which this Article affords of inviting the faithful to the practice of piety, of justice and of all the other Christian duties, by holding out to them such ample rewards as are announced in the words life everlasting. Among the blessings which we instinctively desire life is certainly esteemed one of the greatest. Now it is chiefly by this blessing that we describe the happiness (of the just) when we say life everlasting. If, then, there is nothing more loved, nothing dearer or sweeter, than this short and calamitous life, which is subject to so many and such various miseries that it should rather be called death; with what ardour of soul, with what earnestness of purpose, should we not seek that eternal life which, without evil of any sort, presents to us the pure and unmixed enjoyment of every good?
Negative and Positive Elements of Eternal Life
The happiness of eternal life is, as defined by the Fathers, an exemption from all evil, and an enjoyment of all good.
Concerning (the exemption from all) evil the Scriptures bear witness in the most explicit terms. For it is written in the Apocalypse: They shall no more hunger nor thirst, neither shall the sun fall on them, nor any heat; ‘� and again, God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.
As for the glory of the blessed, it shall be without measure, and the kinds of their solid joys and pleasures without number. Since our minds cannot grasp the greatness of this glory, nor can it possibly enter into our souls, it is necessary for us to enter into it, that is, into the joy of the Lord, so that immersed therein we may completely satisfy the longing of our hearts.
Although, as St. Augustine observes, it would seem easier to enumerate the evils from which we shall be exempt than the goods and the pleasures which we shall enjoy; yet we must endeavour to explain, briefly and clearly, these things which are calculated to inflame the faithful with a desire of arriving at the enjoyment of this supreme felicity.
But first of all we should make use of a distinction which has been sanctioned by the most eminent writers on religion; for they teach that there are two sorts of goods, one of which constitutes happiness, the other follows upon it. The former, therefore, for the sake of perspicuity, they have called essential blessings, the latter, accessory.
Solid happiness, which we may designate by the common appellation, essential, consists in the vision of God, and the enjoyment of His beauty who is the source and principle of all goodness and perfection. This, says Christ our Lord, is eternal life: that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. These words St. John seems to interpret when he says: Dearly beloved, we are now the sons of God; and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be. We know that when he shall appear, we shall be like to him: because we shawl see him as he is. He shows, then, that beatitude consists of two things: that we shall behold God such as He is in His own nature and substance; and that we ourselves shall become, as it were, gods.
The Light Of Glory
For those who enjoy God while they retain their own nature, assume a certain admirable and almost divine form, so as to seem gods rather than men. Why this transformation takes place becomes at once intelligible if we only reflect that a thing is known either from its essence, or from its image and appearance, consequently, as nothing so resembles God as to afford by its resemblance a perfect knowledge of Him, it follows that no creature can behold His Divine Nature and Essence unless this same Divine Essence has joined itself to us, and this St. Paul means when he says: We now see through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face.’ The words, in a dark manner, St. Augustine understands to mean that we see Him in a resemblance calculated to convey to us some notion of the Deity.
This St. Denis’ also clearly shows when he says that the things above cannot be known by comparison with the things below; for the essence and substance of anything incorporeal cannot be known through the image of that which is corporeal, particularly as a resemblance must be less gross and more spiritual than that which it represents, as we easily know from universal experience. Since, therefore, it is impossible that any image drawn from created things should be equally pure and spiritual with God, no resemblance can enable us perfectly to comprehend the Divine Essence. Moreover, all created things are circumscribed within certain limits of perfection, while God is without limits; and therefore nothing created can reflect His immensity.
The only means, then, of arriving at a knowledge of the Divine Essence is that God unite Himself in some sort to us, and after an incomprehensible manner elevate our minds to a higher degree of perfection, and thus render us capable of contemplating the beauty of His Nature. This the light of His glory will accomplish. Illumined by its splendour we shall see God, the true light, in His own light.
The Beatific Vision
For the blessed always see God present and by this greatest and most exalted of gifts, being made partakers of the divine nature, they enjoy true and solid happiness. Our belief in this happiness should be joined with an assured hope that we too shall one day, through the divine goodness, attain it. This the Fathers declared in their Creed, which says: I expect the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
An Illustration Of This Truth
These are truths, so divine that they cannot be expressed in any words or comprehended by us in thought. We may, however, trace some resemblance of this happiness in sensible objects. Thus, iron when acted on by fire becomes inflamed and while it is substantially the same seems changed into fire, a different substance; so likewise the blessed, who are admitted into the glory of heaven and burn with a love of God, are so affected that, without ceasing to be what they are, they may be said with truth to differ more from those still on earth than red�hot iron differs from itself when cold.
To say all in a few words, supreme and absolute happiness, which we call essential, consists in the possession of God; for what can he lack to consummate his happiness who possesses the God of all goodness and perfection?
To this happiness, however, are added certain gifts which are common to all the blessed, and which, because more within the reach of human comprehension, are generally found more effectual in moving and inflaming the heart. These the Apostle seems to have in view when, in his Epistle to the Romans, he says: Glory and honour, and peace to every one that worketh good.
For the blessed shall enjoy glory; not only that glory which we have already shown to constitute essential happiness, or to be its inseparable accompaniment, but also that glory which consists in the clear and distinct knowledge which each (of the blessed) shall have of the singular and exalted dignity of his companions (in glory).
And how distinguished must not that honour be which is conferred by God Himself, who no longer calls them servants, but friends, brethren and sons of God! Hence the Redeemer will address His elect in these most loving and honourable words: Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you. Justly, then, may we exclaim: Thy friends, O God, are made exceedingly honourable. They shall also receive the highest praise from Christ the Lord, in presence of His heavenly Father and His Angels.
And if nature has implanted in the heart of every man the common desire of securing the esteem of men eminent for wisdom, because they are deemed the most reliable judges of merit, what an accession of glory to the blessed, to show towards each other the highest veneration !
To enumerate all the delights with which the souls of the blessed shall be filled would be an endless task. We cannot even conceive them in thought. With this truth, however, the minds of the faithful should be deeply impressed �� that the happiness of the Saints is full to overflowing of all those pleasures which can be enjoyed or even desired in this life, whether they regard the powers of the mind or of the perfection of the body; albeit this must be in a manner more exalted than, to use the Apostle’s words, eye hath seen, ear heard, or the heart of man conceived.
Thus the body, which was before gross and material, shall put off in heaven its mortality, and having become refined and spiritualised, will no longer require corporal food; while the soul shall be satiated to its supreme delight with that eternal food of glory which the Master of that great feast passing will minister to all.
Who will desire rich apparel or royal robes, where there shall be no further use for such things, and where all shall be clothed with immortality and splendour, and adorned with a crown of imperishable glory?
And if the possession of a spacious and magnificent mansion contributes to human happiness, what more spacious, what more magnificent, can be conceived than heaven itself, which is illumined throughout with the brightness of God ? Hence the Prophet, contemplating the beauty of this dwelling�place, and burning with the desire of reaching those mansions of bliss, exclaims: How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! my soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God. That the faithful may be all filled with the same sentiments and utter the same language should be the object of the pastor’s most earnest desires, as it should also be of his zealous labours. For in my Father’s house, says our Lord, there are many mansions,” in which shall be distributed rewards of greater and of less value according to each one’s deserts. He who soweth sparingly, shall also reap sparingly: and he who soweth in blessings, shall also reap blessings.
How to Arrive at the Enjoyment of this Happiness
The pastor, therefore, should not only encourage the faithful to seek this happiness, but should frequently remind them that the sure way of obtaining it is to possess the virtues of faith and charity, to persevere in prayer and the use of the Sacraments, and to discharge all the duties of kindness towards their neighbour.
Thus, through the mercy of God, who has prepared that blessed glory for those who love Him, shall be one day fulfilled the words of the Prophet: My people shall sit in the beauty of peace, and in the tabernacle of confidence, and in wealthy rest.