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Catholic Vs Protestant Perspective On Death Essay Sample

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Catholic Vs Protestant Perspective On Death Essay Sample

In a general sense, death is the fact or an action of dying or being killed, thus, it is the end of a human life or an organism.  It is referred to as a total cessation of a life process, which eventually transpires in all living organisms.  The state of human death has always been indeterminate through superstition and mystery.  The precise definition of death, however, remains controversial, differing according to culture and religions.

Most Christians view death as a transition phase to a glorious place referred to as heaven.  They believe that through death, one is reunited with loved ones and other believers who have gone ahead.  The condition to enter heaven is not by the works of an individual on earth but on accepting Jesus Christ as the savior and redeemer.  (Ariès, 1981, 431)  Christians believe that those who die in Christ will be seen again.  Many Christians believed that heaven’s wealth is non-materials.  Its blessings are forever and cannot be destroyed.  Some of this wealth will be enjoyed by those who are redeemed after death while some will be enjoyed in the present life.  (McDannell and Lang, 1988, 111)

Christianity has been divided over how individuals gain entry into heaven.  It has been divided between the views of Roman Catholics and the views of Protestants.  In Catholic tradition, the entry of an individual into heaven depends on the Christian who receives the grace of God through the activities of the church.  These include the sacraments such as Baptism, the Eucharist, and Confession.  (McDannell and Lang, 1988, 115)  Roman Catholics believe that entry into Purgatory after death cleanses the sins of an individual, thus, making him or her acceptable in heaven.  (Ariès, 1981, 439)  For Protestants, the entry of an individual into heaven depends on the Christian who places faith in Jesus Christ.

Protestant views maintain that as Jesus Christ died on the cross, He took the punishment for the sins of the world.  As such, any individual who has faith in Jesus Christ and asks forgiveness for his/her sins will have the promise of entering heaven.  Thus, the views on death of Roman Catholics and Protestants have been similar and dissimilar in many ways.  In the Old Catholic, the dead enter an intermediate state where the grace of Jesus Christ purifies him/her.  The awareness of the future provides a state of peace and felicity for those who have lived in faith.  (Stannard, 1977, 67)  For others, this awareness provides a state of dread and fear.  Jesus Christ who is to come at the end of time will give individuals the final judgment both to the living and the dead.  Those who are called by Him to happiness will move to the just.  The unrepentant, on the other hand, will be transformed completely for the creation of the Kingdom.  (Ariès, 1981, 441)

At present, Roman Catholics believe that immediately after death, the souls of the unrepentant enter into a state of unhappiness and total absence of God, which is in hell.  Prior to being admitted into heaven, an individual enters Purgatory where he or she is cleansed by punishment because of the sins he or she had committed.  (McDannell and Lang, 1988, 113)  Saints, martyrs, and others who elect enter into heaven directly.  During general resurrection, the souls of the dead are reunited with their bodies, thus, the kingdom of God will be established.

For the Protestants, on the other hand, there is no intermediate state.  The souls of those who are faithful enter heaven directly through the grace of God.  In contrast, the unrepentant sinners are put aside for judgment.  The return of Jesus Christ presents the Kingdom by His achievement, which will be the creation of the Kingdom of the Spirit.  (Stannard, 1977, 68)

Roman Catholics view death as a passage from the present life to the new.  It is the way to an everlasting life as promised by Jesus Christ.  The soul of the dead proceeds to the afterlife, which can lead either to Purgatory, Heaven, or Hell.  Based on Catholic belief, the bodies of the dead will be resurrected at the end of time.  The Roman Catholic funeral service is referred to as the Mass of the Resurrection.  During such service, the life of Jesus Christ is remembered and associated to the life of the dead.  Eulogies are not allowed in the funeral mass; however, eulogies may be delivered during the wake or at other non-religious ceremonies.  Roman Catholics also practice a final graveside farewell to the dead as well as other traditions depending on the region.  The Church encourages Roman Catholics to be buried in Catholic cemeteries.  The Vatican had lifted the ban on cremation for Catholics in 1963.  On the other hand, the cremains should be interred and cannot be scattered anywhere or kept at home.  (Walter, 1994, 370)

As mentioned earlier, Protestantism is a collective term, which is applied to Christian denominations originating in groups that have been separated from the Roman Catholic Church during the sixteenth-century Reformation in Europe.  (Walter, 1994, 369)  The Protestants have challenged the manipulation of concerns of the Church in terms of death and destiny to obtain temporal power and raise revenue.  The Church had responded to the challenge of the Protestanst, thus, leading to the social and political alliances shaping by the debate.  This led to the major reform movements becoming churches independent of Rome.

During this time, the society was preoccupied with the issue of death.  The Roman Catholic Church had occupied a central role in mediating between the living and the dead in purgatory.  Purgatory is a place of purification for souls preparing themselves for entry into heaven.  The period of suffering in purgatory could be reduced through prayers and masses endowed by the family and friends of the deceased.  It was also possible to gain a special gift of indulgence or pardon.  During the late middle Ages, indulgences had become commodities, which were sold by the Church.  (Walter, 1994, 368)

The Protestants have asserted that God saved souls through a free and unmerited gift of grace, which was in contrast to the view of Roman Catholics that God saved souls through church practices and decrees.  The Protestants have denounced purgatory, the invocation of the saints, and prayers for the dead.  They have adopted an agnostic stance in terms of matters, which were not directly attested to by Scripture.  The Protestants insisted that the living could no longer work on behalf of the deceased.  This view had brought significant changes in the practices and beliefs concerning dying, disposal, and death.

On their death beds, Protestants do not make provision for the repose of their souls by conducting masses, providing alms for the poor or purchasing indulgences for them to be remembered in their prayers.  The Protestants had sought to testify to the faith they held and in which they now died.  Good deaths, for Protestants, was peaceful, assured, and calm; although in Puritan New England, especially belief in predestination required essential doubt of deliverance, assurance being replaced by apprehensive repentance.  (Walter, 1994, 370)

Contrary to the Roman Catholic funerals that deliver eulogies for the deceased and intercede for them in their entry into eternal life, Protestants avoid any form of intercessions on behalf of the dead.  Instead, they preach to the living.  The performative ritual of Roman Catholics was denounced.  Protestants only remembered the deceased and sought to learn from their example.  On the other hand, both the Roman Catholics and Protestants continue to evangelize through fostering contempt for the world, giving emphasis on suffering as a way to salvation, and heightening the fear of death.  (Ariès, 1981, 437)

The social reorganization accompanying industrialization had changed European burial practices.  Instead of garden cemeteries, they were replaced with churchyards that separate places of worship from the place of burial.  Undertakers had been visible in preparing and transferring bodies.  In due course, undertakers were also in-charge in coordinating religious services, which were conducted during funerals.  More so, death was regarded increasingly as a medical challenge and not as a spiritual transition; as medicine became dominant in the nineteenth century.  This secularization of disposal and dying had initially affected Protestants more than the Roman Catholics since the latter retained their ritual prerequisites.

The first half of the 20th century has seen the end of any unusual idea of a Protestant death.  It has also ended an increasing silence with regard to the afterlife issues, which had presided over earlier religious debate.  These remaining distinctions, however, had grinded down in the 1970s.  Purgatory had effectively ceased from the Roman Catholic discourse.  Since World War II, cremation had become common not only among Protestants, who view it as a more practical way of disposal, but also among Roman Catholics. (Ariès, 1981, 437)  In the 21st century, both Roman Catholics and Protestants have given emphasis on the living rather than the dead.  Both religions have struggled to direct the renewed interest in relation with the dead that is emerging in Western societies.

Death is a reality that every individual must face.  Christians, both Roman Catholics and Protestants, will at different periods and in different ways exert explicit or subtle pressure on the bereaved in order to avoid grief.  However, grief is necessary for mental well-being.


Ariès, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. 431-42.

McDannell, Colleen, and Bernhard Lang. Heaven: A History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988. 111-115.

Stannard, David E. The Puritan Way of Death. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. 67-68

Walter, Tony. The Revival of Death. New York: Routledge, 1994. 368-370.

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