The Significance of the Hour of Death (“Hour of Death” 1 of 3)

Death is the end of man’s earthly pilgrimage, of the time of grace and mercy which God offers him so as to work out his earthly life in keeping with the divine plan, and to decide his ultimate destiny.

CCC 1013

The goal of evangelization is the salvation of souls; that is, that human beings might be delivered from slavery to sin, and enter into communion with God to share His Divine Life forever. For each person, there is only a brief period of time in which it is possible to make this transition from sin to grace: during their lifetime.[1] And they must be in the state of grace at the moment of death so that they will be guaranteed entrance into eternal life: “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment” (Heb 9:27 DRA).[2]

The major connection between evangelization and the time immediately preceding death is clear: We evangelize in the hopes that, through the influence of the gospel we proclaim, people will ultimately find themselves spiritually prepared when the hour of death approaches, and find eternal salvation when they pass from this life to the next.

But that is not the only connection between evangelization and “the hour of death.” If we reflect upon what the Sacred Scriptures and the saints tell us about the hour of death, we can grow in zeal to carry out the work of evangelization and intercession, and also grow in hope. We evangelize with zeal, concerned lest souls be lost; but we carry a powerful hope, knowing that the Lord is equipped, capable, and willing to save.

“Wages of Sin,” or “Gain”?

The Bible teaches that death is “the wages of sin” (Romans 6:23 RSVCE); that is, that “sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin” (Romans 5:12 RSVCE). The devil “has the power of death,” and the fear of death is a kind of slavery (Hebrews 2:14-15 RSVCE). As such, death is a sworn enemy of mankind. Jesus Christ came to earth, on the other hand, to destroy the devil and his works (See Hebrews 2:14; 1 John 3:8 RSVCE). Death will be “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26 RSVCE) when it is “swallowed up in victory” at the resurrection of the dead when Christ returns in glory (1 Corinthians 15:54-55 RSVCE).

Although Christ has not yet destroyed bodily death, he has transformed it for those who trust in him. For those who approach death in the grace of Christ, “death is gain” (Phil 1:21). If we die with Christ in Baptism and remain in this grace until the end, physical death will fulfill and complete our union with Christ (see 2 Tim 2:11).[3] For this reason, we are called, in the words of the Catechism, “to prepare ourselves for the hour of our death”;[4] and many times, in our longing for fulfillment in Christ, we will “experience a desire for death”[5] (see Philippians 1:23). Like the death of Jesus, our deaths should be times of reunion with the God whom we love: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46 DRA).

The question, then, becomes: which will it be? Will death be for us simply “the wages of sin,” or will it be transformed into “gain”? This is the dramatic question at stake for each person as he or she approaches the hour of death.

And it seems that we are instinctively aware of this. For many people, the approach of death seems to bring the truth of divine judgment closer to conscious awareness. For many this leads to fear. When death approaches, “sinners are in dread, trembling grips the impious: ‘Who of us can live with consuming fire? who of us can live with everlasting flames?’” (Isaiah 33:14 NABRE). Even for a fundamentally righteous person, like King Hezekiah of Judah, the approach of death can cause deep sadness and bitterness of the soul, bringing powerfully to mind God and one’s sinfulness (see Isaiah 38).

For others, especially those who have lived a full life and/or had a good conscience, the approach of death may not be so emotionally troubling. Consider, for example, the deaths of the great patriarch Jacob/Israel (see Genesis 48-49) and others who, at the end of a long life, spend the time immediately before death blessing their families! The Sacred Scriptures call such a death “the death of the just” (Numbers 23:10).

However, a “peaceful” death at the end of a long life may also come to some hardened sinners. They may be too confirmed in their sin and too proud to allow themselves to be subject to fear or to humble themselves before God. Their consciences may be “seared” (see 1 Timothy 4:2), and so their bad conscience stays below the surface. In their case, the appearance of a peaceful death (and life) may be deceiving (see Psalm 73). On the other hand, the just person may die an early or otherwise terrible death, so that “to others, indeed, they seem punished”; however, “their hope [is] full of immortality” (see Wisdom 3, 4:7-14; see Isaiah 57:1-2). For “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15 RSVCE). The death of Our Lord Jesus Christ is the prime example of this.

In every case, however — wicked or just, peaceful or painful — the “hour of death” has immense (indeed eternal) significance for every human being. St. Augustine wrote, “God has promised forgiveness to your repentance, but He has not promised tomorrow to your procrastination.”[6] It is God who decides when the hour of death approaches. He provides for the time, place, and manner of death for each person, according to His mysterious saving and just will — knowing the inner heart of each person, taking the free choices of each into account, as well as the needs of others.

(Stay tuned for part 2: The Outcomes of the Hour of Death; and part 3: Preparing Ourselves & Others for the Hour of Death)

[1] See CCC, sec. 1007.

[2] See CCC, sec. 1861.

[3] See CCC, sec. 1010.

[4] CCC, sec. 1014.

[5] CCC, sec. 1011.

[6] “Deus conversioni tuae indulgentiam promisit, sed dilationi tuae diem crastinum non promisit.” PL, vol. 37, col. 1877. [Commentary on Psalm 145 (146)].

Author: Mr. Mark J Hornbacher, OP

Mark is the Vice President of Programs and Director of Theology at St. Paul Street Evangelization. He has a MA in Theology and a B.Phil from Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, and a BA in Theology from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI. With Steve Dawson, he is the co-author of Ordinary Christians, Extraordinary Signs: Healing in Evangelization. He is a lay Dominican, and resides in Sterling Heights, MI with his wife Gayle, and their three sons.

2 thoughts on “The Significance of the Hour of Death (“Hour of Death” 1 of 3)

  1. John Testore says:

    Great article, Mark.

    In Medicine, Death is defined as ‘Organs shutdown’, precluding unconsciousness.
    The body doesn’t perceive pain with loss of consciousness.
    Unconsciousness and Coma are different despite the features look equal.
    Coma is the inability to react to stimuli, the reason Palliative Care is employed in comatose conditions.

    It is agreed that the last stage of death is always peaceful.

    When Science and Faith meet.

    God bless


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