When someone close to us dies, especially if his or her life has been a rather troubled or painful one, we take consolation in the thought that he or she is finally “safe in God’s arms”. But what is contained in that thought? What does it mean to be safe in God’s arms?
How do God’s love and mercy work? How does God’s justice take into account our imperfections, sin, and selfishness when we die? To be in heaven is to be at one with God and with all others of good will. Given this, what happens to us when we die and are still too full of false will, false freedom, and simple selfishness to be truly at one with God and community? How can we be safe in God’s arms when there is still inside of us much that is resistant to the selflessness that is required to live, as Scripture puts it, in the land of the living?
Jesus tells us in the Gospels that his will is entirely one with the Father. Few human persons, perhaps none, die in a condition which is that ideal. So what happens to us when we die? The afterlife is something beyond present imagination and so it is risky to use images from this life to try to understand it, but, given the infinite love and power of God, perhaps the following image might be helpful.
Picture this, a common enough image: A very young child is in the throes of a tantrum. Angry, sobbing, kicking, stubbornly wilful, resistant to every effort to be helped, the child is closed in on itself. Then, somewhere past the time where any reasoning or persuasion can do any good, the mother picks up the child. But the child is not exactly compliant. He or she continues to kick and scream and fight the mother, trying to push away from her and continue the tantrum.
However the mother’s is not put off by this. She understands it for what it is and calmly, though firmly, continues to hold the child and to press it to her breast. Slowly, or perhaps even instantly, the fighting stops. The child continues to cry, but now the tears are different. They are no longer the tears of anger and resistance that infantile grandiosity, false will, and immaturity bring. No, they are the tears that the prodigal son cried when he was embraced by his father, tears that, precisely, move one beyond grandiosity and selfishness to peace and rest. They are the tears of helplessness and trust, tears that result from letting go of false will and false self-importance. At a point, the child comes to quiet and peace. It is safe in its mother’s arms.
Few images, to my mind, are as helpful to understand what happens to us when we die as is this one. Except for cases where there is truly a hardened and hopelessly distorted heart (a situation which, while theoretically important to affirm, is, I believe, most rare in fact) our false will, immaturities, prejudices, angers, sick secrets, sin, and straight out selfishness are our tantrum, our infantile kicking resistance to love. God, like any good mother, understands these for what they are and, like any good mother, knows too what to do.
He, She in this case, picks us up and, despite our kicking and resistance, holds us safely in her arms. Then, since our alienation is not that of someone who is strong enough to commit the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit (a sin of strength) but is rather the weakness of someone who is suffering from the immaturity and selfishness of a child, our resistance will be short-lived. Soon, very soon, we will cease kicking against love and we will let ourselves be held – in will and in true freedom as well as in body, mind, and soul. We will be safely in God’s arms, finally in the land of the living.
This image is also helpful in understanding what, classically in Roman Catholic theology, has been taught as the state of purgatory. Catholics and Protestants have long argued about the existence or non-existence of purgatory. For Catholics purgatory was thought as necessary since some purification is necessary for us in order to live in heaven (otherwise heaven would soon turn into earth!) Protestants, basing themselves on scripture which teaches at there are only two eternal states, heaven and hell, have basically always rejected the idea of purgatory. Purgatory, however, should not be understood as a place that is separate from heaven. It is the pain of entering heaven. Thus, it is not a place, it is an anguish. Purgatory is the purifying pain that is felt by the selfish, resistant child, kicking against the mother. But it is a momentary pain, one that gives way to quiet peace and contentment just as soon as the struggle against love ceases.