An Explanation of the Apostle’s Creed – Twelfth Article of the Creed

“And life everlasting. Amen.”

There is a Never-ending Life

The soul of a man does not die with his body. It is immortal, and only enters on its true life after death. That the human soul is immortal is proved in many places of divine revelation, and it is evident, too, from the very nature of the soul itself. In the twenty-third verse of the second chapter of Wisdom we read, “God created man incorruptible, and to the image of His own likeness He made him.” How emphatically and solemnly, too, does Christ warn His disciples and all Christians not to fear those who can kill the body, but not the soul, and that they ought to fear him who can plunge body and soul into everlasting torments.

Our soul is a spirit, and has nothing in common with material things of earth. Hence it can never be subject to corruption, as is the case with the body. The soul can not die.

Heaven – Hell

There is, then, as the twelfth article of the Creed teaches, a never-ending life for all time. But this mysterious life without any end will be very different for different men after they leave this earth, according as they have spent their time here well or ill.

The eternal life of the just will be one of endless, unspeakable happiness. Of this truth we are assured by Saint Paul the Apostle, who was carried in spirit into heaven, when he writes, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear dieard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9) The smallest measure of heavenly happiness is inconceivably greater than all earthly joys. In heaven there is neither sickness nor pain, nor hunger, nor thirst, nor envy, nor unrest, neither want nor superfluity. There all things combine to perfect the joys and delights of mankind.

And yet there are different degrees in the happiness of heaven. Great as is the smallest measure of heaven’s happiness, there are regular gradations of glory, and although it is hard for us to understand this thoroughly, we believe it firmly, for not only does Saint Paul say that “every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labor” (1 Corinthians 3:8) but it accords also with the strict justice of God, who, while not allowing the slightest good work to go unrewarded, bestows a brighter crown upon a holy martyr or zealous apostle than He gives to the ordinary Christian, though the latter lives and dies in the state of grace.

Much depends on the Christian himself whether his reward shall be great or small. His every good work increases his merit and augments his future happiness. Every temptation that he overcomes forms a new and brilliant pearl in his future crown of glory.

As the just shall live forever in unspeakable, undying happiness, so, too, shall the wicked live forever a life of indescribable misery in hell in the company of the devil, his angels, and the souls of the wretched. This is indeed a dreadful and alarming truth, but it is a truth nevertheless, for hell itself is a truth which we are unable to deny, and which we must acknowledge. There is no doctrine in Holy Scriptures more plainly taught, more sharply defined, or more frequently alluded to. Our divine Saviour Himself says plainly that on the Last Day He will say to the wicked, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into everlasting fire.” (Matthew 25:41) This fire is so torturing that, in order to escape it, we should be willing and able to suffer the most wretched misery on earth.

We can hardly conceive anything more pitiable and helpless than loss of the power of motion, which makes us dependent on the mercy and charity of others. Yet Christ says to those who are wandering over wrong ways: “If thy foot scandalize thee, cut it off: it better for thee to enter lame into life everlasting, than having two feet, to be cast into the hell of unquenchable fire.” (Mark 9:44)

Again, Christ says that “the fire is everlasting, and the worm dieth not.” Of what avail is all the wisdom of men, arrayed against the wisdom and power of God? How can the culprit make terms with his judge? The infallible Church of God, therefore, has always maintained this doctrine as an awful yet salutary voice of warning. There is not in the whole Church one holy Father who does not agree with all the others on this point of doctrine. Thus Saint Athanasius, at the close of his celebrated Creed, says plainly and simply, “Of him, who does not preserve this Catholic belief entire and unimpaired, we may say that he is undoubtedly lost eternally.”

Moreover the doctrine of hell is not much at variance with human reason, as some pretend to teach. We have only to remember who those are that go to hell. They are the perpetrators of mortal sin, those who willingly and industriously act in opposition to God and so die His enemies. They can never again return, for the time of their activity has passed forever. For all eternity they remain in their state of sin, in their enmity to God, in their stubbornness, in their impenitence. The punishment lasts because the sin continues, and because the justice of God endures forever. All this is reasonable and natural enough. As the sin is never-ending, the punishment is everlasting.

The Four Last Things

Only the threat of eternal punishment can deter men from the commission of sin. Such is universal experience. God can not threaten more, and yet how many men live a life of thoughtless sinfulness! God’s threats are always verified, and yet few there are that concern themselves about them. How, then, would it be if there were no eternal punishment in store for sin? The penalty of bodily suffering and death man does not fear when, in gratifying his inordinate passions, he transgresses nature’s laws, the violation of which is often followed by premature death. It is only the remembrance of a frightful eternity that can make any positive impression on the sinful heart of man. Hence all those persons who have attained a high degree of sanctity and perfection have practised uninterrupted meditation on the four last things to be remembered. These are Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Meditation on these subjects deterred them from yielding to sin, stayed their evil inclinations, enabled them to resist temptation and spurred them on to the practise of good works.

It was from a remembrance of these things that great sinners gathered strength to return to God and to do salutary penance. From the same source thousands upon thousands of innocent persons acquired force and constancy to live as if they were penitents, that they might not be forced to become such. By the austerity of their lives these last-named preserved unsullied their baptismal innocence, for they knew that one time is not the same as no time, as the wicked fools say, but that whoever loses his innocence only one time has lost it for all time; that momentary gratification brings perpetual suffering; that all pains and trials are merely transient, yet tending to secure everlasting happiness. Thus, by virtue of their serious meditation, although dwelling on earth, they were in both heaven and hell, observing faithfully the solemn injunction of Ecclesiasticus, “In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin.” (Ecclesiasticus 7:40)

Death – Passages from the Holy Scriptures

(For instructions on the Last Judgment, Heaven and Hell, see the seventh article of the Creed)

“I know that Thou wilt deliver me to death, where a house is appointed for every one that liveth.” (Job 30:23)

“What man is he that shall live, and not see death?” (Psalms 88:49)

“All things go to one place: of earth they were made, and into earth they returned together.” (Ecclesiastes 3:20)

“The days of man are short.” (Job 14:5)

“All flesh shall fade as grass, and as the leaf that springeth out on a green tree.” (Ecclesiasticus 14:18)

“There is but one step between me and death.” (1 Kings 20:3)

“Boast not for to-morrow, for thou knowest not what the day to come may bring forth.” (Proverbs 27:1)

“Man knoweth not his own end; but as fishes are taken with the hook, and as birds are caught with the snare, so men are taken in the evil time, when it shall suddenly come upon them.” (Ecclesiastes 9:12)

“For yourselves know perfectly, that the day of the Lord shall so come, as a thief in the night For when they shall say peace and security: then shall sudden destruction come upon them.” (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3)

“Behold, the Judge standeth before the door.” (James 5:9)

“If then thou shalt not watch, I will come to thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know at what hour I will come to thee.” (Apocalypse 3:3)

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” (Psalms 115:15)

“The just man hath hope in his death.” (Proverbs 14:32)

“With him that feareth the Lord it shall go well in the latter end, and in the day of his death, he shall be blessed.” (Ecclesiasticus 1:13)

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” (Apocalypse 14:13)

“The just shall live for evermore: and their reward is with the Lord, and the care of them with the Most High. Therefore shall they receive a kingdom of glory, and a crown of beauty at the hand of the Lord; for with His right hand He will cover them, and with His holy arm He will defend them.” (Wisdom 5:16-17)

“When the wicked man is dead, there shall be no hope any more.” (Proverbs 11:7)

“And they [the wicked] shall fall after this without honor, and be a reproach among the dead forever.” (Wisdom 4:19)

“The death of the wicked is very evil.” (Psalms 33:22)

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31)

Christian Burial

God pronounced sentence on the human body when He said to fallen man, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return to the earth, out of which thou wast taken” (Genesis 3:19). Hence among the followers of the one true God, at once arose the custom, not indeed to burn their dead as the pagans did, but to bury them in the earth. From the history of Tobias alone we discover what great importance was attached to the proper interment of the dead, and how highly estimated was such respectful conduct.

In the Catholic Church respect for the body of man is second only to respect for his soul. Hence in Catholic burial solemnities attention is given to the human remains, while prayers are more especially offered for the soul or spiritual part of the departed member of the mystical body. The remains of a recently deceased Christian are first washed and decently clad in clean garments to express the respect we entertain for the body as having been the temple of God. In very early times the custom prevailed of laying the bodies of bishops and other prominent persons, who had during their lifetime shown sympathy for the public, in great state before the people to afford them an opportunity of gazing once more on the beloved features of their leaders and benefactors. Thus was the body of the Emperor Constantine the Great, who died in the year 337, laid in state before his subjects, with many tapers burning about his bier. Soon it became a rule never to bury till three days after death. The places of burial were previously blessed, in order to receive becomingly the bodies of “the saints,” as the Christians are styled in Scripture. The relatives and friends accompanied the body, which was generally carried on the shoulders, with prayer, and singing of psalms. Generally the deceased parties were carried by persons of their own profession or condition in life. Thus bishops were borne by bishops, priests by priests, young men by young men, maidens by maidens, and so on. Burning wax tapers were carried in the hands of the attendants, out of regard for an old tradition which said that such was done at the interment of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Arrived at the grave, the attendants were reminded by the priest of the solemn words pronounced by God against Adam and also of the more cheering words of Our Saviour, in which a happy resurrection is foretold for all those who believe. For this reason, in ancient times, more songs of joy were sung than lamentations. Indeed many of the early Fathers of the Church found fault with the lamentations uttered over the dead, who are but asleep in the Lord and in possession of a happy end. Hence the cross, the symbol of salvation and reconciliation, was always planted at the head of the grave.

Immediately after death began the prayers for the dead. The priests offered up Masses as soon as possible. The laity kept vigils near the remains, a custom that gave rise to our present custom of wakes. On the day of the interment the holy sacrifice of the Mass was celebrated with all solemnity. The same ceremony was repeated on the third day, on the seventh, and again on the thirtieth, as well as on the anniversary of the death. The third day was chosen in remembrance of Our Saviour’s resurrection; the seventh in commemoration of the Sabbath day’s rest, into which it is hoped the soul of the deceased may be admitted; the thirtieth is in imitation of the custom of the ancient Israelites who mourned for thirty days over the death of Moses. The yearly anniversary is natural and explains itself.

The laity on such occasions brought offerings for the support of the clergy and for the relief of the poor, that by doing good works they might secure the mercy of God for the deceased. This admirable practise, which exists still in some pious parishes, is founded on the words of Tobias, as follows, “Lay out thy bread, and thy wine upon the burial of a just man,” as well as on a vicarious action of satisfaction of those who have passed into the communion of saints.

In the Middle Ages it was the custom to place the bodies in the church, even on anniversary days, and to perform the obsequies in their presence. The danger of spreading infectious diseases put an end to this practise, and in its place a catafalque was erected, with a representation of a coffin on which were placed the insignia and other marks of the condition and dignity of the deceased. If the body was that of a layman, and was buried in the church, his face looked toward the altar; but if he were a priest his face looked toward the people, as a pastor addressing his flock, and as when he used to wish them “The Lord be with you” (Dominus vobiscum).

Now we take our leave of the consideration of the Apostles’ Creed. Like a traveler who, visiting, in the pleasant days of springtime, beautiful landscapes which, with their verdant woods and fair fields, with their limpid lakes and sparkling streams, rejoice his heart, retains forevermore in his heart a vivid picture of their joy and beauty, so, too, should we retain indelibly impressed on our memories the many sublime truths taught us in the Apostles’ Creed. They should accompany us through life, as help when we grow weak, as comfort in the day of affliction, as a constant memorial of Him who created us, who redeemed us and sanctified us, in order that we may constantly believe in Him, hope in Him, and love Him.

And what is there better for us to carry in our hearts than these very teachings of the Apostles’ Creed? They embrace heaven and earth, teach us to know God and all that He has done for our temporal and spiritual welfare. Be praised and honored, then, glorious Creed of our Catholic faith. Thou art a fountain of wisdom, a source of virtue for each one of us. Sun of truth, thou it is that nineteen centuries ago appeared on the horizon of a world sunk in the gloomy darkness of iniquity, and dispelled those countless numbers of absurd pagan deities before which philosophers, kings, and peoples bowed down in adoration. Thou hast rescued man from the superstition that disgraced him, thou hast freed him from it forever. By the happy splendor of thy truth thou hast given to man those correct notions concerning God, man, the world and its origin, their duties, their destiny, and the sublime relations in which we stand toward our Supreme Father and all creatures. Exalted epitome of the doctrines of Him who came from heaven, we are indebted to thee for our education, which constitutes our honor. From thy healthful maxims and right belief proceed the morals of nations, their laws, their institutions. By substituting Catholic principles in the place of the Jewish and heathen thou hast revolutionized the world and given to Christian nations the brilliant traits by which they are distinguished. Thou hast improved the world’s ideas of slavery, Woman, the child, the prisoner, the poor, the power of kings and the duty of subjects. Thy twelve articles are, as it were, twelve fair columns, brilliant as gold and firmer than the diamond, that sustain among the nations the social fabric. If one is shaken the whole building falls to ruin.

For thousands of years old pagan philosophy, with all the acuteness of human wisdom, had endeavored to find out what God is. But all these researches, all these disquisitions, never led a man to say, never enabled him to profess: “I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” The old worldly-wise teachers would have rejoiced indeed could they have succeeded in obtaining from the lips of the Christ-child this sublime yet simple truth. All the wisdom of the learned is put to shame before the light of the divine revelation.

Let us, then, thank God for His great love and mercy, in which He has made known to us Himself and the eternal truths of salvation. But let our gratitude show itself especially in frequent and pious recital of the Apostles’ Creed, as well as in a faithful and consistent life in accordance with the teachings of our holy faith.” I believe: “let that be a sacred and solemn pledge that we wish to lay before God.” I believe: “let that be our profession in life and in death.” Amen. Be it so.