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On the Resurrection of the Damned

On the Resurrection of the Damned David Davis

David Davis

James V. Schall, S.J. - published on 02/23/14

There will be judgement for everyone some day.

“A philosophy that avoids the problem of evil,” Nicholás Gómez Dávila’s aphorism reads, “is a fairy tale for gullible children.” But if we bravely confront this famous “problem” to avoid any taint of “gullibility,” we run head on into the issue of proper punishment for evil. We also need to know if what is called good is in fact evil, or if what is evil can be called or legislated into a good. Plato had long ago taught us that, by any reading, not all evils are punished in this world, nor are all good deeds aptly rewarded. It follows that, unless the soul is immortal, the evildoers usually get by with their crimes. Many good deeds also go unrewarded. Is this situation intellectually tolerable? And if not, what might be the consequences of any claim that ultimately all unrepented evils are punished?  In what does their punishment consist?

But why is a “repented” evil not punished? Obviously, some connection must be made between the one who is punished and the act that requires punishment. This relation means that the guilty person must be free to do or not do what is punished. If he is simply “determined” to do something, obviously it is unjust to punish him. But the word “unjust” has no meaning in an unfree or determined world. In a relativist world, nothing can be said to be right or wrong unless we make it so for ourselves alone. This position conveniently makes everything subjective. If whatever we do is right because we do it, no one can do anything wrong. So any punishment in such a world would be unjust — whatever unjust might mean in a world in which what happened had to happen.

In our common understanding, the distinctions between good and evil, just and unjust things are not subjective; we discover them. They indicate to us how things are, how we must be and live. Dávila implies that the failure to consider the implications of evil is serious. He also intends that we should concern ourselves with its consequences. We are to “examine” our lives in their light. Most often, we fail to consider evil and its consequences because we do not want to give up doing what is evil. We assume that if we do not think about evil and its consequences, they will go away. They won’t. And this worry of a sense of evil in our souls cannot help but puzzle us, upset us.

Let me approach this topic from another angle: I am ultimately concerned here with the resurrection of the damned. Why are we not simply left with soul? Why does it not just perish and disappear? Why must it be “resurrected” as a whole person? Some maintain that no one is in hell, so it is a moot question. But that view seems oblivious to the unsettling record of humanly caused evil in this world. If our evil acts have no consequences whatsoever, we trivialize any real moral or graced effort. If everyone is simply “saved,” no matter what he does or believes, what difference does it make what we do? But, initially, I want to point out that it is a good thing to be concerned about these seemingly remote or improbable issues. As it turns out, they are neither remote nor improbable. Without them, we cannot explain fully what we are.

In regard to our concern about these things, Psalm 37 tells us “non ambulari in malignantibus” (“not to fret because of the wicked”). In this passage, I have often been struck by its advice about the “wicked”; it does not quibble about the obvious fact that the “wicked” exist and that we recognize evil. Also, the verb translated as “fret” in this passage always seems so vivid. The Latin simply says that we should not “walk among those who do evil.” The New American Bible has “do not be vexed over evildoers.” To “fret” seems more jumpy than to be “vexed,” though I like that word, too. Nor are we to “envy those who do evil.” Why not? “They wither quickly, like the grass.” We are not to “fret over the man who prospers, a man who makes evil plots.” We are told frankly: “Those who do evil shall perish.” Somehow, this consequence strikes us as logical. We would expect nothing less, even though the “wicked” can be around for a longer time than is intimated here. And the opposite statement — “Those who do evil shall be blessed” — seems quite wrong. Why? Because a standard that everyone recognizes seems available to all of us. If it makes no immediate or ultimate difference what anyone does, we have no common ground by which we can talk to one another or live together.

The unavoidable implication of these instructions is that the “wicked,” those who do “evil,” will not, as it were, “get away with it.” Yet, we remain “vexed.” We “fret.” How can such things be? With Glaucon and Adeimantos in the Republic, we know that the unjust often seem to be praised and rewarded for clearly evil deeds. Even the poets tell us that evildoers prosper while the good are persecuted and killed. Christ said pretty much the same thing happened to prophets. But everyone “perishes,” not just the wicked. So we have to be careful where we go with this argument. We all die, and hence the “judgment,” as the Book of Maccabees has it.

Probably no more “hated” word exists in our modern language today than “judgment.” Why is it so detested by so many people, when “to judge” is the very purpose of our minds? It is because judgment implies that everything is not in our own hands. We are judged by standards that are implicit in our being. When we violate them, consequences follow, even in this world. What we do is to reject on our own authority the order that was put into our souls and being for our own flourishing. We are told that no other “good” but the reasonable good of our nature will satisfy us. We defy this claim by choosing to live and rule as we want, even when, or perhaps especially when, what we want is contradictory to what was once called the natural order of being human.

These reflections obviously stem from the Old Testament. The resurrection appears in the New Testament, though there are intimations of it in the Old. Certainly, in Plato, we have a whole rationale for the immortality of the soul that stems from his efforts to explain why we cannot escape punishment for our sins, even if we are praised for them while we often are in this life. In the Catholic understanding of the resurrection, all human beings are to be restored to their wholeness, body and soul. Obviously, this restoration is both of those who save their souls and of those who do not. The first thing to note is that all incomplete things seek their own completion. This seeking would be true both for the saved and the damned. It is the whole person who saved himself and the whole person who did not.

We hear much talk of the fires of hell, yet the greatest pain that we can imagine is that of missing what we ought to be through our own freedom and fault. In that sense, God does not “punish” us. He lets us be with what we have chosen for ourselves. Some might say: should God not give everyone a second chance? In fact, he did; he gave everyone many chances. If we recall the story of Dives and Lazarus, it was proposed that someone go back from the dead to warn those living of what might happen. Christ said that it would not work. Everyone already had everything he needed. One life is enough in which to determine how we stand. The ones who missed the first time would miss the second time and for the same reason.

Benedict XVI, in Spe Salvi, brings this issue up. Those who do not repent great crimes will not sit at the great banquet table with others. The Pope pointed out that justice required that the whole person be rewarded or punished for what he did. This requirement is one of the reasons for the resurrection of the body. Justice could not be fully achieved if the damned were not also resurrected and were thence to live out their choice, a choice that not even God can change. God cannot coerce a free creature to what God wants him to do. If he did this, the creature would no longer be free, no longer be himself. Some might like to think that it is against God’s goodness to resurrect the damned to face the consequences of their acts. But the fact is that unless these consequences are faced, the world is not complete. But the world must be complete, and in allowing us our ultimate freedom, God allows – indeed requires – the resurrection of the damned.

Why should we think of these things, especially in the modern world where no one believes in God, the afterlife, eternal rewards, or punishments? It is precisely to reaffirm that in this life, we work out what is the eternity in which we choose to continue forever. We might think our lives are unimportant or that it does not matter what we do or believe. The teaching of the resurrection of the damned is designed as a grace to remind us, to teach us that we cannot hide from our own crimes or choices.

In Chapter 2 of the First Book of Samuel, we read: “For an all-knowing God is the Lord, a God who judges deeds.” It is from this judgment, based on our deeds, that we ultimately rise to be among the blessed or are cast to be with the damned. The divine judgment, in turn, is based on our free choices, which we decided to live with both in time and eternity. The resurrection of the damned is a logical consequence of the real freedom of will and God’s inability to make what was free to be not free. God allows our freedom to work themselves out to their full completion. This is what is required in a world in which the free creature is offered eternal life but rejects it in preference to his own will and the life that follows from it – the life we call the resurrection of the damned.

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