Here are four items for my Church Write-Up about last Sunday’s church activities. This is an LCMS church.
A. The Sunday School class is about death, and the teacher was going into what various religions believe about the afterlife. He was explaining what Roman Catholics think about mortal sin. What makes a sin mortal? First, it is a grave matter, such as murder and adultery. Second, it is committed deliberately, with full knowledge of wrongdoing; it is not an accident. The teacher said that mortal sin cannot be forgiven, though later he said that some mortal sins can be forgiven, if a Catholic does penance. Venial sins are cleansed in purgatory. Meanwhile, there is limbo for unbaptized babies and people who never heard the Gospel, which includes people in Old Testament times. The teacher highlighted two areas in which Lutherans disagree with Catholics. First, Lutherans do not distinguish between mortal and venial sins. To them, a sin is a sin, and no one sin is worse than another. Second, people in Old Testament times actually heard the Gospel, in some form.
Some of this overlaps with my understanding of Catholic teaching, and some of it does not. This will not be a documented post, since my goal here is to record my reflections. But I will base what I say on my reading of the Catholic catechism and Aquinas years ago. My understanding is that mortal sins can be forgiven, provided that a Christian repents of them before death; otherwise, the Christian goes to hell. Venial sins do not damn a person to hell, but they should be taken seriously because they can harden a Christian to God and possibly become mortal. Venial sins are cleansed in purgatory. The distinction between mortal and venial sins only applies to Christians. As far as non-Christians are concerned, all of their sins are mortal sins and damn them to hell, for they lack divine forgiveness; for them, a sin is a sin. Not all sins are equal, though, for some sins are worse than others, and non-Christians will suffer variously in hell, based on the seriousness of their sin. This can be nuanced, since Vatican II Catholicism has been rather pluralistic or inclusivist about non-Christians going to heaven.
B. The teacher said that Muslims believe that people’s souls remain in the graves until the resurrection at the last day, but that their souls are happy or unhappy in the grave based on their destination: if their destination is heaven, then their souls are happy in the grave, but their souls are unhappy if their destination is hell. Their destination is based on how many good works they have done. Someone asked how this is reconciled with the Islamic view that Muslims who die in battle will have seventy virgins in heaven immediately after death; I thought of something a social studies teacher said years ago: that, according to historical Islam, before a Muslim warrior falls to the ground in battle, his soul goes straight to heaven to be with Allah. Is that (i.e., immediately going to heaven or some realm in the afterlife) the exception rather than the rule?
C. The teacher talked about experiences with ghosts that his family had. Decades ago, his brother died in his forties, and relatives saw the brother after his death. One relative saw the brother walking at a distance, like he used to do when he was doing farm-work. Another saw the brother at a birthday party, as clearly as the alive people who were there. My guess is that these dead souls are unaware that they are dead, which is why they do the activities that they did before they died. They may be caught in somewhat of a time-warp or a time-loop, like a dream; they do not know enough to realize that their living family members are unaware of their presence because they are ghosts. They may not be reconciled to the reality of their death. In shows like Ghost Whisperer, it is when they become reconciled that they go into the light and consciously enter the afterlife. The question would then be whether this can be reconciled with a Christian view of the afterlife, in which souls go to heaven or hell immediately after death.
D. The pastor talked about how we look for some safe place that can tell us that we are doing all right. We may think that we are more righteous than others, or we may be happy that we are not experiencing the suffering that others do. This reminded me of something I heard on the Thinking Fellows podcast, which has LCMS academics. A professor defined total depravity as the human inability to find any safe ground, in himself or herself, that can qualify a person as righteous before God.