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Chapter 18: The Way of Sin to Death

Question F: Is there a final option at the moment of death?

1. Some think that at the moment of death everyone has one last chance to dispose of himself or herself forever. Ladislaus Boros, S.J., has been a leading proponent of this idea.13

2. According to Boros, at the moment of death one makes the first totally personal choice about one’s eternal destiny. It would not do for death to catch people, as it were, and freeze them either in grace or sin forever. This is particularly so because the acts which one can do in one’s lifetime are limited in their personal character by one’s limited knowledge, by passion, and by the limited possibilities with which any act deals.14

3. The hypothesis that in the moment of death one at last has a fully free, totally self-determining choice, a choice like that of the angels, seems to Boros also to solve many other theological questions, such as the fate of those who die in original sin only. Above all, he thinks his theory assigns the limited and imperfectly personal choices one makes in this life the limited and merely relative significance they deserve.15

Boros describes this final option. In death, the individual is fully free and conscious. Man’s deepest being, his universe, splendid humanity “comes rushing towards him.

Being flows towards him like a boundless stream of things, meanings, persons and happenings, ready to convey him right into the Godhead. Yes; God himself stretches out his hand for him; God who, in every stirring of his existence, had been in him as his deepest mystery, from the stuff of which he had always been forming himself; God who had ever been driving him on towards an eternal destiny. There now man stands, free to accept or reject this splendor. In a last, final decision he either allows this flood of realities to flow past him, while he stands there eternally turned to stone, like a rock past which the life-giving stream flows on, noble enough in himself no doubt, but abandoned and eternally alone; or he allows himself to be carried along by this flood, becomes part of it and flows on into eternal fulfillment.16

It seems clear that Boros imagines an option with no real choice.

4. The hypothesis of a final option shares a central difficulty of other theories of fundamental option: It assumes that one can and must make a direct choice between God and creature. Describing this choice metaphorically, Boros contends that one can choose to be either eternally fulfilled or eternally turned to stone. Of course, this is no real choice. Who would choose to be turned to stone? At one point, Boros tries to answer this objection and another closely related to it, namely, that his notion makes the present life insignificant and guarantees that everyone reaches heaven. His reply is that Jesus speaks of legions of fallen angels, and their choice was precisely that of the final option.17 However, Boros only assumes, not shows, that the angels’ choice was such as he imagines.

5. Like proponents of fundamental freedom, Boros does not grasp the significance of the free choices we make from day to day. He does not see how we really determine our identities by the lives we live.18 He therefore assumes that it is inexplicable for probation to end at death without a final option. The real question is not this, however, but how mortal sin can be repented during this life, since free choices of themselves tend to persist, and every mortal sin involves accepting separation from God.

6. Besides these difficulties which it shares with fundamental-option theories, the notion of a final option has difficulties of its own. There is no basis in experience for thinking that people make or are in any condition to make a choice at the moment of death. In practice, Boros attributes the final option to the disembodied spirit, but then it is no longer the final option of life but the initial option after death. Boros cannot admit this, however, for, as he says himself, it would “be contrary to the Church’s teaching on the inalterability of the state a man reaches through his death.”19

7. Nothing in Scripture supports the idea of a final option, and there is much against it. The gospel’s warnings emphasize the importance for eternity of one’s condition at death. This condition and therefore one’s fate are being settled now: “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6.2).20

8. From a rational point of view, it is very hard to see what sort of choice one could have as a final option. At one point Boros suggests it is to make or refuse an ultimate act of self-surrender, to resign oneself with faith to destruction or resist the ultimate self-emptying of death.21 Initially this has some plausibility; it gives the option some content which is not wholly other-worldly. Upon further reflection, though, what sense does it really make to speak of self-surrender in the moment of death? Before death one can commend oneself to God and give up the ghost, resigning oneself to a foreseen but not yet present inevitability, or one can refuse to do so. But such resignation, if it occurs, must occur before death. At the moment of death, if one were perfectly aware, one would realize that the inevitable was now present. And what option remains to one aware that the absolutely inevitable is now at hand?22

13. Boros is not the only proponent of final option. Louis Monden, S.J., Sin, Liberty and Law (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965), 19–44, spells out a version of final option. His argument depends heavily upon stressing the limitations of the freedom in ordinary choices, so that he virtually denies moral responsibility in the course of one’s life. Others defend final option with arguments in general similar to those of Boros: Piet Schoonenberg, S.J., Man and Sin: A Theological View (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1965), 30–36; Roger Troisfontaines, S.J., I Do Not Die (New York: Desclée, 1963), 147–88. For further references and some general, critical remarks, see Gisbert Greshake, “Towards a Theology of Dying,” in The Experience of Dying, Concilium, 94, ed. Norbert Greinacher and Alois Müller (New York: Herder and Herder, 1974), 80–85.

14. Ladislaus Boros, S.J., The Mystery of Death (New York: Herder and Herder, 1965), 86–99.

15. Ibid., 127–28; cf. Monden, op. cit., 20–33.

16. Boros, op. cit., ix. Troisfontaines, op. cit., 152–53, also supposes that the final option is an unmediated (that is, direct) one between accepting and rejecting the divine invitation to communion.

17. Boros, op. cit., 98.

18. A telling critique of Boros’ theory, especially in respect to its angelism: Matthew J. O’Connell, S.J., “The Mystery of Death: A Recent Contribution,” Theological Studies, 27 (1966), 434–42. O’Connell’s critique of Boros would be equally cogent against others, such as Troisfontaines, who makes it clear (op. cit., 156–60) that he thinks of the final option as an act of the angel-like separated soul.

19. Boros, op. cit., 4.

20. Another theological argument for final option is that this hypothesis solves the problem of children and retarded persons who die unbaptized (thus eliminating the awkward theological construct, limbo, which is not required by definitive Church teaching), and also that final option will cover the case of persons who never hear the gospel; see Troisfontaines, op. cit., 174–77, for a concise statement of this argument. With respect to those who have not heard the gospel, the argument has been weakened by Vatican II’s teaching (see LG 16) that grace is given by way of preparation for the gospel, and that those who “strive to live a good life” thanks to this grace can be saved. This teaching seems to favor the view that people can be saved by an implicit desire for friendship with God, which amounts to faith so far as they are concerned. As for those who die unbaptized without the use of reason, they are no less disposed in themselves to grace than are infants who are baptized; and it seems to me that the real, human effort of the Church to carry out Christ’s mandate to baptize constitutes a real relationship of the gospel to them, by which their baptism is incipient. As I explained in chapter fourteen, appendix 2, this beginning of baptism does not render less necessary the completion of the sacramental rite when that is possible, for a beginning is such only by pointing toward its completion.

21. Boros, op. cit., 68–81.

22. Karl Rahner, On the Theology of Death (New York: Herder and Herder, 1961), 35–39, attempts to argue that dying must not only be passive but also active. In doing so, he assumes that death is decisive for one’s eternal status either by one’s own act or by God’s free decree (37–38). There is another possibility: that dying (and whatever happens afterwards) eliminates the dissonance between the self constituted by choice during one’s life and other aspects of the personality, and that this dissonance is a necessary (not sufficient) condition of repentance during life. Rahner’s a priori argument that since the person involves freedom, dying also must involve it, since dying affects the whole person, proves too much if it proves anything. For, as Greshake points out (op. cit., 83), there is also passivity in the beginning of life. Being conceived affects the whole person. Bartholomew J. Collopy, S.J., “Theology and the Darkness of Death,” Theological Studies, 39 (1978), 22–54, esp. 33–39, offers profound reflections to clarify the arbitrary character of the model of death proposed by Boros and Rahner.