Toddy, Heaven and Hell

IAN DE COTTA

DEATH CAN be a humbling experience for the living. During the weekend, some friends and I attended the funeral of a fellow journalist. It was the second time in a year, almost to the day, that we’ve lost a friend and colleague. Both were in the prime of their lives and succumbed to cancer. Lim Kuan Chiang was 52, and Daniel Dan Guen Chin, 64.

Over the years I’ve lost several close friends and relatives to terminal illness. The youngest was in his 20s. The passing of people we know, especially when attending their funerals, always muddies the water of life and death within us.

Whether or not we believe in God and eternal life — or care to admit it — we inevitably ponder the question on where a person who just died has gone to. In multi-religious societies such as Singapore and Malaysia, which include people who do not believe in God or religion, we celebrate the life of deceased friends and relatives in a way that they are now in a better place.

Which I think is great.

But the weekend in Johor Bahru after Dan’s funeral was different. Well, yes, a bunch of us got some bottles of freshly brewed toddy (coconut palm wine) and gathered at a friend’s apartment to remember him, and laughed at some of his idiosyncrasies.

That’s Dan. He touched people’s lives in his own funny way.

But, then, the topic turned to why he converted to Catholicism about a month ago. There is a story that he had a vision of Jesus Christ standing at the foot of his bed, and immediately asked for baptism, which he got.

In the face of encroaching death, many, including those I know, turn to religion because of the uncertainty of what lies beyond the grave. All the major religions in Singapore and Malaysia teach there is an afterlife and how a person lived life on Earth will influence his or her soul’s ultimate destiny after death.

Christianity (Catholic and non-Catholic), Islam and Judaism also teach about eternal damnation — a never-ending suffering in eternity — for those who end up in Hell. It is a horrific thought and you do not want to wish this on anyone, even your enemies.

For Dan heading into the unknown, he turned to Catholicism for hope.

Someone ribbed that he cheated his way into Heaven. I was the only Catholic in the room and said it was probably true. Without going into details I explained that in Catholic doctrine, deathbed conversions through baptism lead directly to Heaven. And in Dan’s case because he didn’t have the time — or opportunity — to sin, there is a kind of certainty about this.

(If you are interested in this topic go here and here, under deathbed conversions. But if you think I am trying to convert anyone to Catholicism with this post, stop reading because I am not, as there is a point to this story.)

This led to another question — and it always does — if Hitler, with his monstrous deeds of killing Jews, Christians and others, who did not fit into his scheme of things, could have been spared Hell under Catholic teaching. The German dictator was a lapsed (non-practising) Catholic, so could not be baptised again.

The only thing that could have saved him from Hell was the Sacrament of Confession in his last moments, if he was TRULY contrite of his sins. In the absence of access to this, a Divine intervention prior to death, before Whom he must be truly sorry for sins committed in his lifetime, especially the Holocaust, could have helped him. But we don’t know if any of this actually took place.

So why, in Catholic doctrine, is God willing to forgive even the vilest among us? It is because the severity and pain of Hell is beyond human understanding, and He does not want anyone to suffer its consequences. He pities us and, therefore, gives everyone* a chance — even at the moment before death — to avoid it. But the choice is all ours before we die and we make the decision to accept His offer for contrition and Heaven, or reject it and opt for Hell.

(*Catholic doctrine also teaches that non-believers of the faith are given this chance, but that the necessity of baptism and all the rest of the seven sacraments make salvation a certainty.)

What is the point of this post?

We are in an era when there is a growing tendency to dismiss people who believe in religion as out-of date with the “reality” of secularism and the Enlightenment. Believers and their religions are often made fun off and are subdued when the topic of God is brought up. They are afraid to speak up or defend what they believe in because few would listen and many would ridicule.

When we fail to understand what religions teach, it brews misunderstanding and suspicion. The lid, when it comes off from the ensuing pressue, usually leads to religious tension and, in many parts of the world, violence and persecution against religious minorities. And we have seen this in Pakistan, the Middle East and even in Malaysia.

But in the Johor apartment on Saturday, there were people willing to listen on what I thought about Dan’s conversion. Which is good because we live in uncertain and dangerous times and there must be respect for what people believe in. The alternative can be disastrous.