“For the wages of sin is death. But the grace of God, life everlasting, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 6:23
“Out of one hundred thousand sinners who continue in sin until death, scarcely one will be saved.” -Saint Jerome
When I was a young man, one of my uncles told me about something he had read that had made a very lasting impression. He told me that the Mafia, so the story went, would carry out certain assassinations on their competitors or enemies for various reasons, but that they didn’t treat all “hits” the same way. If it was “just business, nothing personal”, and someone they had compassion for, they would first send him a priest to hear his confession. He would know what was coming, and would have a chance to make his peace with God and enter a state of grace before they sent him off to the next life in a hail of bullets.
If it was someone they despised, if the hit was personal, they would instead send the man a prostitute to seduce him. They would then burst in while he was in the act of adultery, and kill him without warning, thus, so they reasoned, sending him straight to hell.
Such was the terrifying — but common enough that it was known by thugs and gangsters — understanding of the Catholic teaching on sin. “And fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Mt. 10:28)
In his various commentaries on Genesis, Dr. Scott Hahn returns often to this theme. In his book on the sacrament of Confession, he explains the divine admonition to Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:17 (“On the day you eat thereof you shall surely die”) as follows:
I should point out an oddity in the Hebrew text of Genesis. The passage translated above as “you shall die” does not accurately represent the original. The Hebrew actually repeats the word die, so that it reads “you shall die die.” Now, in Hebrew, repetition serves to intensify a word (to make it “more” or “surely”); but it seems odd for us to find a repetition of the word die. After all, you can’t get any deader than dead. What could this mean? The greatest of the ancient Jewish commentators, Philo of Alexandria, explained that there are two types of death: the death of the body and the death of the soul. “The death of the man is the separation of the soul from the body,” he wrote. “But the death of the soul is the decay of virtue and the bringing in of wickedness. It is for this reason that God says not only ‘die’ but ‘die the death,’ indicating not the death common to us all, but that special death, which is that of the soul becoming entombed in passions and wickedness of all kinds.
The inescapable fact is that we all deserve death as the punishment for sin, but Jesus endured this punishment on our behalf to free us from such a fate. “By death he conquered death,” we say, but moreso than the overcoming of physical death, Christ’s death and resurrection made it possible for us to escape the eternal death of hell.
It is this understanding that illuminates why no religion has offered so many martyrs on the altar of sacrifice as Christianity has. Christians do not fear the death of the body as long as they know that they have given over their soul to God. The early Christians who were torn apart by lions for the entertainment of pagan Rome were joyful unto their horrifying death, at times even reported as singing hymns as they met their gruesome fate. Their courage, their confidence, even in the face of such a brutal end, made a lasting impression on the Roman citizenry. “The blood of the martyrs,” wrote Tertullian, “is the seed of the Church.” Their willingness to die for their One True God made it clear to a polytheistic world that they had something of inestimable worth. As Christendom grew, missionaries were sent off into foreign and hostile lands, often suffering unspeakable cruelties and horrible ends at the hands of the very people they were trying to reach with the message of God’s love. In most cases, as with the Romans, their witness prevailed, and many of these people, their resistance overcome, were themselves baptized and thus entered into the self-same mystery:
“Have you forgotten that when we were baptized into union with Jesus Christ we were baptized into His death? By baptism we were buried with Him, and lay dead, in order that, as Christ was raised from the dead in the splendor of the Father, so also we might set our feet upon the new path of life” (Rom 6.3-4).
“Baptized into union with Him, you have all put on Christ as a garment” (Gal 3.27).
“For in baptism you were buried with Him, in baptism also you were raised to life with Him” (Col 2.12)
The great tragedy of our time is the loss of the sense of sin, and the life of truth and grace. We have descended back into a dark age of barbarism and depravity, where the idolatry of hedonism again reigns supreme. “For many walk,” as the apostle St. Paul tells us in his first epistle to the Philippians, “of whom I have told you often (and now tell you weeping), that they are enemies of the cross of Christ; Whose end is destruction; whose God is their belly; and whose glory is in their shame; who mind earthly things.” (Phil 3:18-19)
This abandonment of the concepts of good and evil, the disavowal of the existence of sin, and the worship of pleasure, make death all the more terrifying in the eyes of believers who love souls. Compounding the problem is our technological progress, which has extended the human lifespan and made it possible for us to stave off the fatal consequences of injury and disease in many cases. The constant prospect of a sudden, unexpected death that haunted so many of our forebears has been muted, and with it, the salutary reflection, “Memento mori…” — “Remember that you have to die…” Even those who know, deep down, that they need to amend their lives, often put this off, confident that they will have time once they have had a chance to “have their fun”.
“Enjoy yourself as much as you like,” wrote St. John Bosco, “if only you keep from sin.”
So it is incredibly shocking when we find ourselves forced to confront a brutality not common to modern existence — as in the massacre that took place in Florida this past weekend. And it should be the case, if we are in any way open to it, that the wisdom of the ancient world is again driven home in such moments. What happened in that nightclub was murderous and evil, but the tragedy of its occurrence was compounded by the fact that it ended the lives of so many who had come, not to enjoy themselves in a fitting manner, but to find indulgence in a modern-day temple of hedonism, a place where sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance were not lamented, but celebrated.
We do not know if the man who died in the arms of a prostitute as the hitmen unloaded their weapons into him had a split-second moment of grace and repentance; likewise, we do not know how many found God as the shots rang out in an Orlando dance club that catered specifically to those engaged in the homosexual lifestyle. This only deepens the tragedy, and the need for prayer for those poor souls, in the hopes that God has shown them His mercy as their lives were cut short before they had an opportunity to return to Him on their own terms. That we simply cannot presume they were saved is a truth almost too horrible to contemplate, but it is one we cannot afford to ignore if we wish to draw any good from this evil. For the living — for us all, since we are all sinners — this must serve as a cautionary tale that some good may come of it, or it is every bit as senseless as it seems.
Death will come for us all. And since we know not the day nor the hour, the question is: will our souls be ready for judgment? We cannot afford to put off until tomorrow our resolution to live according to God’s law, because for us, for reasons we can’t possibly know at this moment, tomorrow may never come. Repent, and turn to the love of God, before it is too late.