Over the years I’ve noticed that a lot of my relatives and friends are terrified of dying. Now, don’t get me wrong. Death is indeed kind of scary, and personally, I definitely prefer being alive. But what I mean is, when the time comes for our earthly lives to end, some people face it with courage and hope, trusting in God’s promises of a glorious life after death in Heaven; while others face it with fear and anxiety.
I’ve noticed that most of my loved ones who are or were terrified to face death grew up in the 1930s and ‘40s and went to Catholic school. In those schools, they were taught by the nuns that God is angry at them, and if they die with a single unrepented and unconfessed sin on their souls, then they are destined for eternal torment in Hell.
This is a lousy thing to tell school-aged kids because, one, it’s emotionally crippling, and two, it’s not even close to being theologically accurate. The Bible could not be more clear that God is loving and merciful.
(By the way, I’m describing what I’ve been told by my relatives. Don’t forget that my gene pool is known for “blarney,” the story-telling gift that emphasizes an interesting tale over an accurate tale. Maybe some of the stories I heard were embellished a bit, drawing on the old stereotype about angry, ruler-wielding nuns. However, I heard enough similar accounts from multiple people to trust that the main gist of the story is correct.)
It’s not all that difficult to get into Heaven. All we need to do is repent and believe the Good News. OK, yeah, that can be difficult for some people. It means acknowledging that our thoughts, words, and deeds have hurt others, and we should feel remorse about that and strive to do better in the future. And it means accepting the fact that God is God and we are not — something that is a challenge for folks nowadays who have been shaped by our modern, selfish culture to believe that they are the center of the universe.
The point is, the message in the Bible, plus the historic teachings of the Church, make it clear that God is merciful and He doesn’t want to see anyone lost. He gives us every opportunity to repent of our failings and to trust in His mercy. When we reach the end of our earthly journey, if we have sincerely repented, asked for forgiveness, and trusted in the Lord’s goodness, we will not have to face death with fear and terror.
On the other hand (you just knew there was going to be another hand, didn’t you?), we have to be careful not to commit the sin of presumption. This is when people presume they definitely are going to Heaven, regardless of their thoughts, actions, and beliefs. Many denominations preach a “name it and claim it” version of salvation. If someone walked up a church aisle and said a prayer when he was 10 years old, then he is guaranteed entrance into Heaven, regardless of his attitudes and actions during the rest of his life. This, too, is unbiblical.
There is a happy medium between the fire and brimstone teachings of Depression Era parochial schools and the rainbows and unicorns, happy-sappy nonsense being taught in many circles today.
God is all loving and He is all just. He wants everyone to experience Heaven, but there are some requirements. Otherwise, sin would get the same reward as righteousness.
We should not presume we’re definitely going to Heaven, but we can be confident about it if we sincerely repent of our selfishness and ask God to forgive us. And when we’ve reached the end of our earthly sojourn, we don’t have to be terrified about what comes next. Why? Because God’s love and mercy — epitomized by the Crucifixion and Resurrection — are more powerful than death. Now, relax and enjoy the rest of your life.