THE PRECIOUS GIFT OF FREE WILL
“If there is any point to our story it is this: Man was made for God, man the individual and man the social being. The history of man on earth is the story of God’s search for man and man’s search for God. It is a story of struggle and of conflict. This is because God in His generosity gave man the precious gift of free will. He sought man’s love, but He wanted it to be given to Him freely. Unfortunately for man, under the influence of Satan, a fallen and angelic spirit, man forsook God for God’s creature, the world. This deriliction from God caused man to fall from the high order of nature and grace in which God had established him, to fall victim to his natural ties to the world of space and time in which God had placed him. Like the man who cannot see the forest for trees, fallen man is more prone to see the infinite variety of the goods and pleasures of the created world than he is to see the great and good God Who has made the world for man and for himself.
ONCE THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE ONE TRUE GOD HAD ALMOST VANISHED FROM THE MIND OF MAN
In the course of centuries (how many we shall probably never learn in this present world) the knowledge of the one true God almost vanished from the mind of man. Men debased such gods as they worshipped to the likeness of the world or of themselves. So they worshipped the sun or the stars, lions, bulls or wolves, or gods made in the likeness of man, adulterous gods like Jupiter, lying and thieving gods like Mercury, gods voracious of human sacrifice like the Baalim of Canaan or the gods of the Aztecs.
TO PREPARE THE WORLD FOR HIS SON, THE REDEEMER, GOD BUILT UP TO HIMSELF A CHOSEN PEOPLE
But though man might desert God, God would not desert man. In the fullness of time He sent His own Son to redeem man from ignorance and iniquity. To prepare the world for His Son He built up to Himself a Chosen People among whom His Son would appear. From Abraham to Malachias [Malachi] God progressively revealed Himself and His intentions for mankind to His Chosen People. His message was not always received with generosity and understanding. But His Chosen People did come to accept Him for what He was, the one true God. By their dispersion among the peoples of the Middle East and the Roman Empire they helped to prepare the world for the coming of God’s own Son. In due time God’s Son became man and entered human history as Jesus the Christ. To save men from ignorance and error, to introduce them to the inner mysteries of God’s own Being and God’s loving intentions for mankind, Jesus revealed to the world the great doctrines of the Trinity of Persons in the one God and the Incarnation of the Second Person (Himself) for the redemption of men. His whole doctrine, as well as the treasury of divine grace which He won for men by the sacrifice of Himself on the Cross as an expiation for the sins of all men, He bequeathed to His kingdom, His Church. Since that time He works in the world in and through His Church, which is His Body, one with Him in the grace of God, for the building up of the final Kingdom of God which shall exist for all eternity. The kingdom will consist of all those who have received and retained the grace of God given them through and by Jesus.
THE POWERS OF HUMAN DISCERNMENT ARE RESTRICTED
It is the task of historians, the artists or scientists of human history to seek the causes of human history. But their powers of discernment are restricted to the proximate causes of human history. At best they can perceive only the human and sub-human factors which direct or influence the course of history. So is it that historians will tell us that families or nations or empires, civilisations and cultures, are born, grow and decline because of the ambitions of individuals or families or nations, because of the accidental talents of great men, because geography, climate or economic factors overwhelm a people or spur them on to great achievements. In these days of Freudianism and depth psychology they may even tell us that civilisations grow, flower or decline because of the neuroses and psychoses, inherited or acquired, of their great men or people.
NOT BEING ABLE TO SEE THE FOREST FOR THE TREES
Now it cannot be denied that historians have a founded right to seek out these possible proximate causes of human history, and to some extent – how great only subsequent history and historians may be able to tell – to describe the causes underlying the particular achievements or failures of human cultures and civilisations. But to the extent – and this is important, indeed – that the tools they employ, human reason, language, science and natural philosophy, cannot make them aware of the great designs of God which truly underlie all history, they cannot describe for us the ultimate cause of history. For true history – history in the sense of the true meaning of human existence, the true plan or plot which is being woven throughout the existence of this human race – not merely a story of man’s natural achievements and failures since he came to exist here on earth.
‘GOING AROUND IN CIRCLES’?
If man’s story were merely the story of purely natural human achievement, then perhaps those men were right in the pagan world of Greece and Rome who thought that everything happened by necessity, and that everything repeated itself, whole civilisations coming into being, flourishing, dying and then later coming into existence again and repeating everything all over. Or perhaps the modern atheistic existentialists are right when they say that human nature has no meaning at all, no true history, for there is no end to the story, and man is doomed to struggle for as long as the race lasts with no hope of achieving any real destiny.
IN THE ‘SCIENTIFIC’, PESSIMISTIC VIEW MAN IS DOOMED FOREVER TO THE RECURRING MONOTONY OF ENLESS REPETITION, TO MEANINGLESS FRUSTRATION
In the old pagan view of cosmic renewals man was held prisoner in the recurring cycles of history, doomed to the recurring monotony of endless repetition. In the modern pessimistic view man is doomed forever to meaningless frustration. But it is one of the functions of Jesus the Christ, the Revealer of God to man, in fact God incarnate or revealed to man, to save mankind from intellectual or emotional errors of this kind. For as Jesus has told the world, God became man in order that men might truly become as God. Deceived by the devil, Adam and Eve sought to become godlike by their own efforts, without God’s assistance. Because of this presumption they lost the divine grace which alone made them truly godlike. But in Christ Jesus this grace is restored to men; in Christ Jesus men can again become like God. This is one of the inner meanings of the message of Jesus. Through grace men can escape from cyclic repetitions, from eternal frustration, from the limitations of time and space. Through grace men can come to participate in the very eternity of God Himself. In this way not only can individuals have a true meaningful history in that there is a true end to their story but all men, as a social unit, in the Mystical Body of Christ, His Church, can have a true end, a true destiny, a final destiny independent of time in the eternity of God. God, Who is eternal, in Christ has entered the world of time, so that man, who is by nature a creature of time, may enter eternity and find therein his true meaning.
JESUS CHRIST ALSO CAME TO SAVE MANKIND FROM INTELLECTUAL ERRORS
At death each man enters eternity. If he has rejected God through his own free will, he enters the false eternity of hell. If he has accepted God, he enters the true eternity of God. At the end of this world all mankind will have entered eternity: the false eternity of hell or the true eternity of the final Kingdom of God. As Jesus Himself has told us, at the end He as the Judge of all mankind will separate the good from the wicked. The wicked will be condemned forever to the pains of hell which was created for the devils. The good will enter the kingdom, the heaven which God created for those who freely love Him.
OVERCOMING THE RAMIFICATIONS OF TIME IN THIS LIFE
What hell and heaven may be we know only in part. Like all real endings to unfinished stories their true dimensions can only be surmised in the tantalising phrases, ‘They lived miserably ever after,’ or ‘They lived happily ever after.’
But thanks to the revelations of Jesus, a few aspects of these ultimate endings are known. Hell is the false ending to the story of man; heaven is the true ending. Now it might well be asked how any story could have a false ending or two endings, one false and one true. A literary critic judging a romance or a novel might well say that the novel had a false ending. He would mean that the author gave his story an ending which was not in accord with the nature and character of the people in the story, or an ending which did not flow from the conjunction of the people involved and the circumstances in which they found themselves. For such a critic the true ending of a story would be one which flowed either naturally or necessarily (or both) from the characters in the story and the circumstances of their lives. The true ending, he would say, is inevitable; neither the author nor the characters he creates can escape this inevitable ending.
GOD INTENDS ALL MEN TO ENTER THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
When we speak, then, of a true and a false ending to the story of mankind we are not using. These terms in precisely the same way as the literary critic. By a false ending to the story of man we mean an ending which God, the principal author of the stry, did not primarily intend. God intended all men to enter the kingdom of heaven. But, as the story turns out, some do not; they enter instead the eternal frustration of hell. To the extent that hell represents their own free rejection of God, it is the true, the inevitable end to their story. But since it is opposed to God’s original intention, it is also a false end to their story. On the other hand, the true end to God’s story is the kingdom of heaven. Heaven, from this point of view, represents man’s free loving acceptance of the love of God, and so it is truly the end of the story.
HELL REPRESENTS MAN’S OWN FREE REJECTION OF GOD; HEAVEN REPRESENTS MAN’S FREE LOVING ACCEPTANCE OF THE LOVE OF GOD
Now the story of mankind has two endings, one wholly true and one false, for a very important reason. It is this: the main line of the story is not one of necessity, of inevitability, but one of freedom. This is one of the great inspiring meanings of the Incarnation, the coming of God to the human race in the Person of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate among men. God, by His decision to create man, freely chose to write the story of mankind. By His decision to create man free, He freely chose to make man co-author of the story. Because man is basically free, the working out of the story is not governed by absolute necessity. God would prefer that all men should find their happy ending in the kingdom of heaven. But through their freedom men are also the co-authors of the story, and therefore, as God Himself foreknew and has told us, there will be two endings to the story, heaven and hell, the heaven which He has freely willed for all men, and the hell which some men will freely choose as their own ending.
THE STORY OF MANKIND IS BASICALLY A STORY OF FREEDOM AND THE USE OF FREEDOM
The story of mankind is basically a story of freedom and the use of freedom: the freedom which God used to create man free; the freedom which the devil used to induce man to desert God; the freedom which man used to choose or reject God; the freedom which Adam used to reject God for himself and the whole race of man; the freedom which God used to become man in order to induce man to return to Him; the freedom which men have used, are using or will use to work out the remainder of the story.
BECAUSE MAN IS FALLEN, MAN IS INCLINED TO ALLOW HIS SPIRIT TO BE FETTERED BY THE NECESSITIES OF MATTER, SPACE AND TIME
To say that freedom is the basic cause of human history is not to deny all value to those proximate causes which the historians patiently discover in the texture and pattern of human historical existence. It is true that geographic and climatic factors, that psychological and economic factors, influence the course of human events. It may even be true that in some cases these factors may prevent the proper use of human freedom and men may find themselves carried along almost helplessly by the stream of events.
If human civilisations and cultures seem to rise and fall according to some natural and inevitable rule or law of human behaviour; if, for example, as some say, civilisations rise because men are faced with a challenge to survive, and decline because in their prosperity they no longer have a real challenge and so grow weak, this is not because man is not free, but because free man is subject to the limitations of matter, of time and of space. Though his spirit, his soul, is free, it is still a spirit immersed in the world of matter, time and space. And, because he is fallen, man is inclined to allow his spirit to be fettered in its essential freedom by the necessities of matter, time and space.
MAN CAN USE HIS FREEDOM TO ESCAPE THE NECESSITIES OF MATTER, TIME AND SPACE
But, as Jesus has told us, man is still free, and he can use his freedom to escape the necessities of matter, time and space. His story is not limited to the horizons of time and space. In and by his free spirit man can transcend the physical necessities of time and space and reach the untrammelled freedom of the Kingdom of God. It is true that at times the natural currents of human history, currents caused by economic, geographical or natural psychological factors, may seem to swamp man’s freedom. But this is true only in appearance. If men are swept along by such currents it is because they weakly choose to be swept along. If they would, they could freely choose to stand against the current. This is what the Christian martyrs did; this is what all true followers of Christ can do.
MAN CAN RISE TO THE EXERCISE OF TRUE FREEDOM ONLY WITH THE AID OF GOD’S GRACE
But it is important to remember that man is fallen. His freedom is hampered by his fall, by his immersion in the inexorable flow of matter in time and space. He can rise to the exercise of true freedom only with the aid of God’s grace. But Jesus has won man this grace by His death on the Cross. It is for man to accept this grace freely, to use it freely to achieve the true ending of his story.
IT IS ETERNITY WHICH FINALLY GIVES MEANING TO TIME
Thus far in this chapter we have been speaking of the final end of man’s history, that final end which gives point and meaning to human history. Though man is a creature of time and space, the ending of his story is in eternity. Thus it is eternity which finally gives meaning to time.
‘HOW WILL IT ALL END?’
But there is another meaning to the word ‘end’ as applied to human history. By the ‘end’ of man’s story we may also mean its end, not in eternity but its end in time. And so, with the curiosity which lurks in every reader of or listener to a story, we may ask, ‘How will it all end?’ By this question we mean to ask such things as, ‘When will it end? How long has it to go? What events will mark its close?’
‘GENERAL OUTLINES, BUT NOT THE COMPLETE BLUEPRINT’
God Himself, when He spoke to men, knew that men would be naturally curious about this end of the story. He has told us something, but not all. He has given us general outlines, but not the complete blueprint.
The disciples of Jesus asked Him: ‘What shall be the sign of thy (final) coming and of the consummation of the world?’ (Matthew 24:3)
Jesus told them that the end of the world would be preceded by wars among the nations, by pestilences, famines and earthquakes, by the appearances of false Christs pretending to be Himself, by the general breakdown of morality, by the fact that His Gospel would have been preached to all the nations of the world, by tribulations greater than any from the beginning of the world, by the darkening of the sun and the moon and the falling of the stars from heaven. (Matthew 24:5-29)
SOME PEOPLE CLAIMED TO HAVE SEEN THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE RIDING IN THE SKY
St John the Apostle in his Apocalypse seems to portray the end of the world as coming after a gigantic struggle between the forces of evil and the forces of good. Mankind will experience plagues and pestilences, famine and war. For a time the forces arrayed against the Christ will overcome those faithful to Christ. But in the end Christ will triumph.
As was natural, in the course of time since Jesus spoke, men have attempted to determine the time of the end of the world from these foretold signs. Some of the earliest generations of Christians, as we can deduce from some of the things written by St Paul, thought that the world was coming to an end in their time. In the twelfth century Joachim of Flora, on the basis of the Apocalypse, thought that this present world would be replaced by a world of universal love under the Holy Spirit in the year 1260 A.D. From time to time, as mankind is afflicted by wars, famines and pestilences, there are some who pretend to see the fulfilment of the prophecies of Jesus or of St John. During the first great World War some people claimed to have seen the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (supposedly heralds of the end of time) riding in the sky.
‘FOR AS LIGHTNING COMETH OUT OF THE EAST…’
If we take a serious look at the world today, it would be a great temptation to identify our times with the time of the end of the world. We live in a time of wars, either cold or shooting, among the nations of the world. Millions of people are dispossessed and landless, living in destitution and famine. Millions of people have been slaughtered in concentration camps. Atomic and thermo-nuclear weapons threaten mankind with tribulations worse than any which have ever before afflicted mankind. The Gospel has been preached to some extent to all the nations of the world. In over half the earth the members of Christ’s kingdom [have been] marked and persecuted. Certainly this age, as much as any other in the history of mankind, might seem to be the age of the end of the world.
But we must also remember that Jesus told us that no one except His Father knew the day or the hour of the end of the world: ‘But of that day or hour no man knoweth, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father’ (Mark 13:32).
This is not to say that the end will not be preceded by the signs which He told us. It means only that no man can know for certain when exactly the end will come. When it does come, as He has said, it will be sudden, ‘For as lightning cometh out of the east and appeareth even unto the west: so shall also the coming of the Son of man be’ (Matthew 24:27).
GOD’S WORDS ARE NEVER IN VAIN
Are then the signs given us by Jesus useless to us? Since He is God His words cannot be in vain. After telling us the signs which shall precede the end of the world and the time of His second coming to judge all men, He tells us, ‘Watch ye therefore, because you know not what hour your Lord will come… I say to all: Watch’ (Matthew 24:42; Mark 13:37).
THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO BE READY AT ANY MOMENT
God has come from eternity into time so that men may go from time to eternity. For each man the moment of his passage is the moment of his death, and this moment he does not know. But this moment will be the end of this present world for him. At every second of his life eternity awaits him, the end of his time. For the whole world eternity waits at each second. At some second, preordained by God, the whole world will come to the end of time. There are signs which will precede this end and man can by these signs surmise when the end might be. But he cannot know for certain that the end is here. But it is not so important to know for certain when this final end of time will be. The imporatant thing, as Jesus has told us, is to be ready at any moment for our own end or for the end of the world: ‘Wherefore be you also ready, because at what hour you know not the Son of man will come’ (Matthew 24:44).
This surely is a necessary conclusion from the words of Jesus. Throughout time eternity waits for man. Throughout time the love of God, the hatred of the devil and the free wills of men are writing the history of mankind. It is for each man and for all the nations of the world, with God’s grace, to write the true final ending of the story. If men freely reject God, they will write the false ending to their own story. If they freely accept the love of God, they will with God bring their story to its true ending, eternal happiness in the Kingdom of God.”
– Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959
(Headings in capitals added afterwards)