From “The Content of Faith:
the Best of all Rahner’s Theological Writings”
by Karl Rahner, 1904-1984
The mystery of death is only distorted if it is viewed on the same level as the end of the animals and is conceived as a biological event which, in a certain way, has only adventitiously anything to do with the human being as such, owing to the fact that his biological end concerns something which is rather more than a purely material living being. The real nature of death as a total and totally human event is completely missed if one takes cognisance only of the traditional definition: a separation of body and soul. For then death is seen only in one of its consequences, instead of in its essence, and we would have to force artificially and retrospectively into the expression “separation of body and soul” those elements which constitute the special character of human death, namely, the personal finality of the end, the fully human and indissoluble unity of act and suffering in death, the hidden outcome of a life which is reaching its full accomplishment, the birth of that eternity, which is not simply added as the continuation of earthly time, but is rather the fruit of a final, free, and absolute decision growing out of time itself, precisely inasmuch as it has been a human time.
From these and similar features of human death, which cannot be discussed here systematically in all their interconnections, let us select the one which has a special bearing on the present topic: the voluntary character of death as such. Death is an act. Certainly, it is the extreme case of something undergone, the event in which what is obscure and beyond control disposes of the human being, ineluctably taking him from himself, in the ultimate depth of his existence. Yet at the same time death is an act and in fact the act of all acts, a free act. A person may be unconscious at the moment he is dying. Death may take him by surprise if what we mean by death is the instant at the end, in which the death which we all die throughout our lives oriented toward this moment is manifested. But just because we die our death in this life, because we are permanently taking leave, permanently parting, looking toward the end, permanently disappointed, ceaselessly piercing through realities into their nothingness, continually narrowing the possibilities of free life through our actual decisions and actual life until we have exhausted life and driven it into the straits of death; because we are always experiencing what is unfathomable and are constantly reaching out beyond what can be stated, into what is incalculable and incomprehensible; and because it is only in this way that we exist in a truly human manner, we die throughout life therefore, and what we call death is really the end of death, the death of death. Whether this death of death will be the second death or the killing of death and the victory of life depends completely on us. Hence, because death is permanently present in the whole of human life, biologically and in the actual concrete experience of the individual person, death is also the act of human freedom.
It must, however, be observed that the human person has to die his death in freedom. He cannot avoid this death imposed upon him as the work of his freedom. How he dies his death and how he understands it depend on the decision of his freedom. Here he does not carry something imposed on him, but what he chooses himself. That is to say that in the face of his immortality, the person must freely face death. He is asked how he wills to do this. For when he opens the eyes of the mind at all, the individual inescapably sees the end, sees it all through life, perhaps dimly and not explicitly, perhaps deliberately avoids looking at it, “overlooks” it, but sees it all the same in doing so. And by freely accepting this human life oriented toward its end, the person freely accepts the movement toward the end.
But the question is, how does the human person understand this end toward which he freely moves since he cannot do anything else than run the course of his life in freedom? Does he run protesting, or lovingly and trustingly? Does he view his end as extinction, or as fulfilment? People usually do not express their answer to this problem in abstract statements about death, but they live and tacitly carry out their free conviction through the actions of their life and the deeds of their daily existence, even when they do not know explicitly that by their life they are interpreting their death.