There are illusive realities such as friendship and love that cannot be reduced to scientific measurements. Some realities can only be accessed through faith, divine revelation and the “sacred science” of theology. The “last things” belong to this latter category.
1. The last things (death, judgment, heaven and hell) are at the same time the most mysterious teachings of the faith and the most controversial.
a. Hell – People use this teaching to point out the incompatible idea of a loving and merciful God who would also create a place of eternal suffering.
b. Heaven – People chalk it up to naive and wishful thinking
c. Purgatory – People say it is an arbitrary, human invention with no scriptural basis.
d. Death – Many say it is the end because nothing can be scientifically measured after death takes place.
a. We are each appointed only one life and one death. We do not believe in reincarnation. Therefore, life is precious. The time we have been given is precious. We must use it well and strive to know God well in this life
a. The Particular Judgment (1021-1022)- We shall each know our own individual eternal fate at the instant of our death (either heaven [through a purification or immediately] or hell)
b. The Last Judgment (1038-1041) – After the resurrection of all the dead at the end of time, “Christ, who is truth itself…will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life”.
4. Catholic understanding of Hell
a. Sin is a heaviness…a cold weighing down…a depravity that holds us back from achieving our potential and purpose. It is a self-absorption. And the apostles referred to it as “the second death”. They urged us not to fear those who can bring about the “first death” of our bodies (i.e. martyrdom during persecution). We are to fear the one who can bring about “the second death” of eternal damnation (i.e. spiritual death).
b. Those who are in hell have chosen to be there. God has not sent them there. They have sent themselves. They have rejected the things of God in a final and irreversible way and God has honored their free choice of rejecting Him. And so God has reserved one place/state in the universe where He refuses to act or to go to accommodate that free choice of rejection. That place is called hell. Imagine a place where God is absent (except by his power of holding that place in existence). There is no joy, happiness, peace, mercy, forgiveness, community, love. Hell is the ultimate misery of self-isolation. It is the person at the party who sits in the corner refusing to join in the celebration.
c. The foreshadowing of hell is experienced by many in this life by those who have cut themselves off from the grace of God. They are depressed, restless, frustrated, self-absorbed and, in short, miserable.
d. Creatures of hell/the demons – These are fallen angels…spiritual black holes…those who fell with Satan when the angels were presented with their own choice for salvation or rejection of God. Tradition seems to hint that about 1/3 of all the angels fell and that these demons have been unleashed on the earth. This is why we are engaged most of all in spiritual warfare with unseen powers according to St. Paul.
5. Catholic understanding of Purgatory
a. Those in purgatory are joyful because they are assured of salvation. However, they undergo purification that their own woundedness (residual results of the sin of one’s life) might be healed enabling them to love perfectly. It is thought that this purification is something that imperfect souls would freely desire for themselves so that they can ultimately come before God free of the stains and effects of sin…taking a spiritual “shower” and presenting yourself in your own best light. The act of purgation may also be thought of as therapy/treatment in a spiritual hospital which restores one to perfect health.
b. The Catholic sense of transitioning into heaven is not one in which we put on the disguise of perfection “by being covered in the blood of Christ” as some Christians describe it. We believe that nothing imperfect will be allowed to enter the gates of heaven. That perfection must run core-deep. Perhaps it is instantaneous or something like that. We do not know the manner in which this perfecting will occur. We simply know that it must occur in this life, through acts of penance and charity (the easier way) or in the next (the harder way). The revelation of this teaching has come to us through the teaching authority of the magisterium of the Church in the same way that the Bible has, our sacramental tradition has, etc. It is part of the deposit of the faith and it is why it has always been understood by the faithful that prayer for the dead is a good and holy act. We do not pray for those who are in heaven. They do not need our prayers. Instead we ask them to pray for us. But we do pray for those souls who are in purgatory because we believe that our prayer and holy works can help them in their purification process.
6. Catholic understanding of Heaven
a. Described variously as the beatific vision, as eternal union with God. We experience perfect beauty, truth and goodness as we achieve the fullness of our potential through God’s grace. “What we shall become we do not know but we know that we will be like Him because we shall see Him as He is.” It is eternal joy and fulfillment because it is eternal union with God, our creator.
b. As with hell, so also the foreshadowing of heaven begins in this life for those who live in God’s grace as friends; a sense of peace, joy, overwhelming love, connection with creation and community. This is a good sign that one is on the right path.
c. Creatures of heaven / The angels – Spiritual messengers named for their vocation and purpose. They are purely spiritual beings that can interface with our world. God created all things; the visible and the invisible. Angels are part of the invisible realm.
7. The Resurrection of the Dead
a. At the end of time, Catholics also believe in the resurrection of the dead. We believe that, at this time, there are only two glorified bodies in heaven: Jesus’ and Mary’s. The rest of us will experience the reunification of our souls with newly perfected and glorified versions of our bodies and that there will be a new heaven and anew earth. The resurrected body of Jesus on that first Easter Sunday gives us some clue of what this existence might be like. He was able to appear suddenly in places, pass through solid objects, etc. and many had a difficult time recognizing him for who he was. He is the first fruits and his mother was honored with a foretaste of what we will all hopefully one day experience.