The Outcomes of the Hour of Death (“The Hour of Death,” 2 of 3)

Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ.

CCC, sec. 1021.
File:Saint francis042.jpg – Wikimedia Commons

What else do the Sacred Scriptures say about the time immediately preceding death? A good place to start is wherever the Lord in the Gospels teaches on divine judgment. Usually, in such cases the immediate reference is the Second Coming of Christ and the Final Judgment of the Nations. But as a general rule of thumb, such teachings can also be applied to the Particular Judgment of the individual soul at death.

With this in mind, let’s look at some of the Lord’s parables: the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30), and of the Workers in the Vineyard (Mt 20:1-16) — with the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (Lk 15:1-10). After that, we’ll look at the Lord’s interaction with the two thieves crucified beside him, as recorded by Saint Luke (Lk 23:39-43).

In the Parable of the Talents, a man goes on a journey and gives his servants varying amounts of money to invest, proportionate to their abilities. When the man returns, the servant who had been given five coins had made five more; the servant who had been given two had made two more; and the servant who had been given one had done nothing with it, but bury it so as not to lose it.

When the master comes back and settles accounts with each servant, he gives a reward to the servants who used what had been entrusted to them well, and tells them, “Come, share your master’s joy.” The master condemns, on the other hand, the servant who did nothing with what had been entrusted to him. Not only does this servant lose what he had been given, but he is thrown “into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (Mt 25:30 NABRE).

At the moment of death, some are judged worthy of eternal life, and others are judged unworthy. As the Catechism teaches, “Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven —through a purification or immediately— or immediate and everlasting damnation” (CCC, sec. 1022). How important, then, must be the hour of death, in which there is still time (however small) to make amends for the past and to change one’s ways?

Also important to note in this parable is the attitude of the one who is condemned. He says, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours” (v. 24-25 RSV-CE). This attitude is that of fear without obedience. And since the Sacred Scriptures closely connect true obedience to the Lord with love of Him (see Jn 14:15), this attitude can also be characterized as fear without love.

Note also the response of the master:

You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.

Matthew 25:26-27 RSV-CE

In other words, if the servant is to have fear, let that fear be allied with obedient love. Such obedient love will be less fruitful with fear than without it — as income from interest is less than income from a successful investment — and yet, it will express the minimum required.

This gives us valuable information about how to approach the hour of death. We should do so with loving obedience to God; and if we are afraid of His judgment, we should not let that stop us from performing such loving obedience the best that we are able. In order to be saved, we must know and believe that although the Lord may be “a hard man,” He is also a ‘good man.’

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard is similar to the Parable of the Talents in many ways, but makes a somewhat different point. It too represents the Final and Particular judgments. But instead of a master with wealth for his servants to invest, we have a landowner with a vineyard that needs laborers for the day. The landowner goes out into the marketplace multiple times during the day to find laborers, and hires some each time he goes out. At the end of the day, the ones hired late in the day are paid the normal daily wage; and so those hired early in the day expect to receive more than that, but they do not. The main point here is that “the last will be first and the first last” — that is, that every one of the faithful will benefit equally from the Lord’s generosity, insofar as He gives eternal life even to those who come late into His service. So it is with the Jews (who came early), and the Gentiles (who came late), and so it is too with individuals who come to the Lord at different points in their lives, early and late.

It is this last point that relates to our topic. Some of the laborers are hired, literally at “the eleventh hour” (v. 6 RSV-CE) — that is, the last hour of the day, or “the hour of death.” Alluding to this, St. Francis de Sales said that even for obstinate sinners, “God Himself wait[s] patiently, even until the eleventh hour,” and held out hope even for the great leader of the Protestant heresies, John Calvin![1] This gives us hope to know that some individuals who do not follow the Lord through most of their lives, will receive and answer the call to faith and repentance in the time immediately preceding their deaths, and so be saved.

Notice also the persistence of the landowner who goes out repeatedly throughout the day to find more laborers. There is a lesson here, too, about the hour of death, that can be brought to further light with the aid of the parables of the Lost Sheep, and of the Lost Coin (Lk 15:1-10).

These parables involve a shepherd going out of his way to find a lost sheep, and a woman going out of her way to find a lost coin; both of them rejoice greatly when they find what they are looking for. This tells us that God desires immensely the salvation of the lost, actively searching out those who are far from Him, seeking to bring them to Himself. In the light of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, we see that this active search extends even to the end of a person’s life, to “the hour of death.” Again, this should give us great hope.

So far, we’ve learned that the hour of death is one’s last chance to repent because it immediately precedes one’s particular judgment, in which one’s final reward is decided — to share the master’s joy, or to be tossed into “the outer darkness.” We’ve also learned that the Lord actively pursues souls like precious coins or lost sheep. He does not give up until they are found; all the way until “the eleventh hour.”

These truths are further displayed in the Gospel of Luke, in the figures of the “good thief” and the “bad thief” crucified next to the Lord Jesus. Both came to the hour of death as thieves, that is, as sinners. But one of them, fearing God, makes an act of repentant faith in Jesus Christ, and the other reviles Him.

One of those robbers who were hanged, blasphemed him, saying: If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering, rebuked him, saying: Neither dost thou fear God, seeing thou art condemned under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man hath done no evil. And he said to Jesus: Lord, remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom. And Jesus said to him: Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise.

Luke 23:39-43 DRA

Of this account Pope Benedict XVI wrote,

In the history of Christian devotion, the good thief has become an image of hope—an image of the consoling certainty that God’s mercy can reach us even in our final moments, that even after a misspent life, the plea for his gracious favor is not made in vain. So, for example, the Dies Irae prays, “Qui … latronem exaudisti, mihi quoque spem dedisti” (just as you answered the prayer of the thief, so you have given me hope).

Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 212-213.

As the good thief gives us hope, so does the bad thief give us a warning. St. Augustine wrote,

The cross itself, if you consider it well, was a judgment-seat; for the Judge being set up in the middle, one thief who believed was delivered, the other who reviled was condemned. Already He signified what He is to do with the quick and the dead: some He will set on His right hand and others on His left. That thief was like those that shall be on the left hand, the other like those that shall be on the right.

Augustine, Tractate 31 on the Gospel of John, sec. 11, See Thomas Aquinas, ST III, q. 46, a. 11.

As was noted in part one, the significance of the hour of death hinges on how we have lived our lives prior to it, and whether or not we find ourselves willing to accept the divine grace manifested in Christ and continually offered by the Holy Spirit. Will death be, for us, “the wages of sin”? Or will it be “gain”?

The outcomes of the hour of death are, quite simply, heaven or hell. An eternity of delight in the presence and vision of the Lord, or an eternity of shame and disgrace, exiled from Him. The first makes bodily death a door to life; the second makes it a door to “the second death” (Revelation 20:14-15; 21:8).

This dramatic alternative lies within our freedom of choice. The choice regards whether or not we will, in faith, submit to the Lord in loving obedience. We may deny Him, in which case He must — righteous God that He is — deny us (see 2 Timothy 2:12). But nevertheless His love endures forever. He seeks out the lost until the very end, and continues to regard the damned with love: “If we are unfaithful he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13 NABRE).

[1] Camus, Jean Pierre. The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales (p. 104, see pp. 105-106). Kindle Edition.

(Stay tuned for part 3: Preparing Ourselves & Others for the Hour of Death. Read part 1: The Significance of the Hour of Death.)

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 two sons.

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