Chapter 22: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, Resurrection of the Body
Father Anthony Nachef, STD (Doctorate in Sacred Theology)
The teachings contained in this chapter are based on Holy Scriptures, the Tradition of the Catholic Church [especially The First and Second Vatican Councils, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the Fathers of the Church (especially St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine)], the Magisterium of the Catholic Church (especially Saint Pope Paul VI, Saint Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis). All Apostolic Encyclicals and Letters are found on the Vatican Website: Vatican
Definition of Heaven
Heaven is a glorious state of being ~ the infinite nature of God: Heaven is a glorious state of our being. It is the ultimate transformation of our being from its earthly category to its heavenly category. It is an existence according to the heavenly dimension. St. John said: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2). The Catechism defines heaven: “This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity – this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed – is called “heaven.” Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” (CCC, 1024)
No human category can capture the essence of Heaven: What is heaven? Heaven is the infinite nature of God shared by us. It is the nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that the human mind can’t fathom. St. Paul taught that no human mind can imagine what God had prepared for those who love him. So, any time anyone thinks about heaven in this or that way, those categories are inadequate to capture the essence of heaven. In this sense we read in the Book of Kings: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you.” (1 King 8:27) It is impossible for the created mind to fathom the infinity of God’s nature. Seeing God face to face is a mystery that cannot be understood. Such a mystery is called ‘beatific vision’ by the Church. The Catechism teaches: “Because of his transcendence, God cannot be seen as he is, unless he himself opens up his mystery to man’s immediate contemplation and gives him the capacity for it. The Church calls this contemplation of God in his heavenly glory ‘the beatific vision’.”
Heaven is a not a ‘place’: It is not a ‘place’ in the same way we have a place here on earth. When we say heaven is a place, it is a place only in the sense that it exists and not in the sense that it is a space. In this sense St. Paul says that “if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Corinthians 5:1) Every category of space and time will be replaced by a heavenly category totally foreign to our state of mind here on earth. St John describes the city of God saying: “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:22)
Personal Judgment at death
Heaven is the fulfillment of our earthly life: It is a fulfillment of life, a state of eternal bliss and happiness. St. Paul teaches: “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Corinthians 4:17) This state of eternal joy is steady and is not subject to change. St. John affirms: “So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” (John 16:22) It is a state of “entering into the joy of ‘our’ master.” (Matthew 25:21) In heaven, we will be like angels who “always behold the face of my (Jesus’) Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:10) There, those who share the divine life of the Blessed Trinity, will receive the ultimate perfection of their being; they will their true identity and their own name.
Judgement at the moment of death ~ not same destiny for everyone: As soon as someone dies he/she will be present in front of the Blessed Trinity. At that time, they will immediately and mercifully receive their reward depending on the life they had. Some will go immediately to heaven (see 1 Jn 3:2; cf. 1 Cor 13:12; Rev 22:4); others will go to to heaven through purgatory; others to final damnation (see CCC, 1022). Love, as St. John of the Cross states, plays a major role in God’s criteria of judgment: “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.” (Dichos, 64)
No need to wait till final judgment to receive our reward: Being in the dimension of heaven, not everyone will receive the same destiny. The Catechism teaches: “The New Testament speaks of judgment primarily in its aspect of the final encounter with Christ in his second coming, but also repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith. The parable of the poor man Lazarus and the words of Christ on the cross to the good thief, as well as other New Testament texts speak of a final destiny of the soul–a destiny which can be different for some and for others.” [(CCC, 1021); see also Lk 16:22; 23:43; Mt 16:26; 2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23; Heb 9:27; 12:23)]
No need to wait till final judgment to enter heaven: As soon as someone dies they will enter the reality of heaven, if that’s God’s judgment on them. Already Pope Benedict XII, in a very authoritative tone, confirmed this teaching as a part of the Divine Revelation: “By virtue of our apostolic authority, we define the following: According to the general disposition of God, the souls of all the saints . . . and other faithful who died after receiving Christ’s holy Baptism (provided they were not in need of purification when they died, . . . or, if they then did need or will need some purification, when they have been purified after death, . . .) already before they take up their bodies again and before the general judgment – and this since the Ascension of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ into heaven – have been, are and will be in heaven, in the heavenly Kingdom and celestial paradise with Christ, joined to the company of the holy angels. Since the Passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, these souls have seen and do see the divine essence with an intuitive vision, and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature.” (Benedictus Deus, 1336)
Universal Judgment at the end of time
Death and the resurrection of the body at the end of time: When the human person dies, their soul will be right away in the presence of God to receive the reward. At the end of human history (nobody knows when it will be) all bodies will rise from the dead, and the risen body will join the risen soul so the totality of the human person (body and soul) will be with God. If the soul is in heaven, the risen body will join the soul in heaven; if the soul is in hell, the risen body will join the soul in hell. In fact, the Acts of the Apostles confirmed that “both the just and the unjust will rise.” (Acts 24:15) Therefore, the Prophet Daniel says: “When that time comes, your own people will be spared, all those whose names are found written in the Book. Of those who lie sleeping in the dust of the earth many will awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting disgrace. The learned will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven, and those who have instructed many in virtue, as bright as stars for all eternity.” (Daniel 12:2-3)
Since the human history will come to an end (see Romans 11:31), the universal resurrection of all bodies will take place then. The second coming of Jesus Christ will happen when God decides to end human history. Of course some people will already be dead and others still alive. St. pauls says: “God chose us to possess salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us in order that we might live together with him, whether we are alive or dead when he comes.” (1 Thessalonians 5:10) Right after the resurrection of the bodies, the final judgment will take place. It is at “the hour when all who are in the tombs will hear [the Son of man’s] voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28-29) Then Christ will come “in his glory, and all the angels with him. . . . Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. . . . And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25: 31, 32, 46)
Old body and new body: The risen body is at the same time in continuity and discontinuity with the old body. St. Paul taught in the same way a grain of wheat dies in the ground and a plant of wheat grows from it, so the old body is the seed for the new spiritual body. The old body is the seed, but the new body surpasses the properties of the seed and becomes a new creation. The grain of wheat is the reason why we have the plant, so the old body is the seed for the new spiritual body. Yet the whole plant was not hidden in this little grain; similarly, the new body is a new spiritual body.
Illness in the old body will not effect the perfection of the new body: Illnesses that influence the shape of the old body are irrelevant in the resurrection of the new body. Having one arm or being blind will have no influence on the shape and the state of the new risen body. This risen body will experience the ultimate joy that no human mind can imagine. If we had moments in our lives where we were laughing so hard we think we might have a stroke, multiply this by a billion times and even that would be but a little taste of heaven.
The challenges of faith in the existence of heaven: God created us to share his eternal glory and life. It is the will of God that every human person be saved, no exception. No doubt should destroy our hope from being with God and sharing God’s eternal life because his will is our eternal redemption, and God’s will never changes. However, because of the limitations of our human nature many times we doubt the realities of faith and it is natural. Keep in mind that our faith is a free decision of the will and not of the emotions. If we don’t feel anything sometimes, it is does not mean we don’t have faith. The storm will pass the sun will shine again.
Sharing heaven with those we don’t like or love! Sometimes we have a deep hatred toward someone wishing them to rot in hell. We must be very careful in going against God’s eternal will for everyone to be saved. It is a reality that these people we hate might be sharing God’s eternal life with us and it will last forever. Purgatory will purge our imperfections of love, so we can love everyone with the eyes and heart of Christ and Mary. The Catechism teaches that at the end of time, everything will be renewed and purified because there is no communion between light and darkness: “Sacred Scripture calls this mysterious renewal, which will transform humanity and the world, ‘new heavens and a new earth’…She will not be wounded any longer by sin, stains, self-love, that destroy or wound the earthly community.“(CCC, 1043 and 10:45; Revelation 21:1)
Transformation of the universe: The entire universe will be transformed into a new earth; but we don’t know how that will happen. The fact that there will be a ‘new earth’ at the end of time, should be a reason for us not to care for our earth today. The transformation of the old universe into a new one is rooted into our universe here on earth, even though it transcends it. Vatican II teaches: “Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come. That is why, although we must be careful to distinguish earthly progress clearly from the increase of the kingdom of Christ, such progress is of vital concern to the kingdom of God, insofar as it can contribute to the better ordering of human society…When we have spread on earth the fruits of our nature and our enterprise . . . according to the command of the Lord and in his Spirit, we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured, when Christ presents to his Father an eternal and universal kingdom” (GS, 39:2-3) That is exactly what St. Paul has already stated in his Letter to the Corinthians that God will then be ‘all in all’ in eternal life (1 Cor. 5:28)
Sin disturbs the moral order and incurs punishment: When we sin, we disturb the moral order. In his love and mercy, God allows us to suffer in order to re-establish the moral order and bring our being back to the level God intended it to be. Now, there are two ways we can amend our lives and pay for our sin: temporal punishment or punishment after life. If we pay here on earth for our sins, then we escape paying for them after life. Somehow, we must make up for our sins and be cleansed here or in the afterlife. The Catechism teaches: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” (CCC, 1030)
Definition of Purgatory: Purgatory is not the same as hell. Many people don’t accepted the idea of purgatory because they misunderstand it. Purgatory is not a place where people are burned by fire the way we normally imagine it. The theology of purgatory is different. When a person dies having sins still on their soul, they long to possess the supreme good, God, but they can’t. They are in the presence of the Almighty God; they look at it and they want to possess it, but they can’t yet because of their sins. That fire of not being able to be fully with God burns their sins. Purgatory is the fire of God’s love that is purging them to be able to fully possess the supreme good and be able to be in heaven. Those who are in purgatory will ‘eventually’ be in heaven.
Old Testament Biblical foundations of Purgatory ~ The Book of Maccabees and the cleansing of sin after death: The reference to purgatory is very evident in the Book of the Maccabees. When Judas, their leader, found that those who had fallen in the war had sacred tokens of idols, he praised the righteous God who allowed them to die. However, he and the Jews “turned to prayer, begging that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. and the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin…In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” (2 Maccabees, 12:42-45). Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant Reformation, dropped this book from the Bible because it teaches that we are capable of praying for the dead to help their sins to be forgiven.
The book of Tobit alludes to the same theology of God allowing his people to experience ‘Hades’ and then bring them up again: “Blessed is God who lives for ever, and blessed is his kingdom. For he afflicts, and he shows mercy; he leads down to Hades, and brings up again, and there is no one who can escape his hand.” (Tobit 13:1-2)
Biblical foundations of Purgatory ~ St. Paul and the cleansing after death: The First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul invites us to found our Christian life and actions on Christ. The result of our work on the Day of judgment, if we haven’t done the greatest job, will be salvation but after being purified. St. Paul says: “For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ… each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, the fire will test what sort of work each one has done…if any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Cor 3:11-15) Everyone’s work will be tested by fire by the very merciful Christ: only he knows the deepest recesses of our hearts and all the details and circumstances of our actions.
When praising the service and the mission of Onesiphorus, St. Paul prays: “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day.” (2 Timothy 1:18) St. Paul here alludes to the mercy of God that will accept Onesiphorus and purifies him. Again such a terminology does not imply a state of holiness of Onesiphorus, neither does it state that he is condemned to hell.
Biblical foundations of Purgatory ~ The Book Revelation and the cleansing of sins after death: In the Book of Revelation St. John boldly teaches that purification after death is necessary before entering the kingdom of God. He affirms that part of God’s heavenly city presupposes a complete holiness of life: “But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Rev 21:27) By no means the description of these ‘unclean’ points to people who are already condemned to hell. In the entire New Testament, the condemned described by Jesus are way far worse then the category of the ‘unclean’. The images and terminology applied to the ‘unclean’ and ‘condemned’ are radically and completely different. This verse implies that the ‘unclean’ are not yet in the city of God but, at the same time, they are not in hell either.
Biblical foundations of Purgatory ~ Letter to the Hebrews temporal punishment to avoid the cleansing of sins after death: In the Letter to the Hebrews, the author invites us to accept God’s punishment as sign of his love for us: “For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves and chastises every son who he receives.” (Heb 12:6). Such a punishment is necessary because its result are the holiness of our lives. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews continues to urge us to “strive for peace with men, and for holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Heb 12:14) A holy life that establishes peace and eliminates sin, is the condition of possibility of ‘seeing the Lord.’ Again, the terminology used here implies that the people without such a ‘holiness’ will not see the Lord; yet, they are not condemned to hell either.
Biblical foundations of Purgatory ~ Mark’s Gospel: In the Gospel of Mark 9, Jesus teaches in these similar terms “If your eye leads you to sin, cut it out. It’s better for you to enter heaven with one eye rather than going to hell with two eyes. Or, if your hand leads you to sin, cut it out etc.…” After that Jesus utters a tricky statement to interpret, “Everyone will be salted by fire”. What does that mean? Is that an indication of purgatory? Most likely yes, because in a context where Jesus invites us to a radical commitment to reject sin (to the point of plucking our eyes), he confirms that there will be punishment. Right then he adds “everyone will be salted by fire.” It is the fire that will burn our sins if we don’t stop sinning in our body.
Biblical foundations of Purgatory ~ Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel: temporal punishment to cleanse sins and avoid cleansing after life: In Matthew 5:25-26 and Luke 12:58, Jesus’ teachings implies the temporal punishment that will help us avoid purgatory. He was telling his disciples, when they are going with their opponent to court, they needed to try to settle with them on the way. Because if they don’t, the judge might throw them in jail and they won’t get out till they had paid the last penny. This could be an image of making up for our sins here on earth to bring our being to the level God intended it to be from the beginning of our creation. Amending our lives here might save us the ‘jail’ of purgatory in the future. Creating love and peace with our neighbor instead of a harsh fight in court could help us avoid jail and paying for our sins to the last penny in this life and in the next.
In Matthew 12:31-32, Jesus explains the seriousness of the sin of those who accused him of being possessed by an evil spirit. They are rejecting the Holy Spirit of Christ and their judgment will be severe. Because Jesus looks like he is a mere human being, sinning against him could be forgiven at the day of judgment, but not the sin against the Holy Spirit who boldly reveals that the kingdom of God is at hand: “Therefore I tell you. every sin and blasphemy with be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
St. Gregory the Great comments that since Jesus taught that some sins could not be forgiven neither in this age nor in the age to come, this implies that some sins can be forgiven in the age to come. Here is what St. Gregory says: “As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.” (Dial. 4:39)
Biblical foundations of Purgatory ~ St. Peter’s Letter: St. Peter invites his reader to welcome suffering as a part of our final destiny when the Lord Jesus is revealed. Such a pain will result in an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. He writes: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith-of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire-may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:6-7)
Purgatory is also the teaching of the Holy Tradition of the Catholic Church: At the end of the John’s Gospel, we read that many other things Jesus did and said that were not written in this book. If they were to be written the whole world can not contain what could be written. Therefore, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to continue his redemption work and to extend in space and time the presence and teachings of Jesus. Jesus assured the Apostles that when he leaves, the Holy Spirit of truth will come down on them and will continue to teach them everything Jesus had taught them until the end of time. He is the Spirit of Truth who will ensure that the Tradition is accurate and immune from error. From the beginning of her life, the Holy Spirit taught the Church’s Magisterium that purgatory is a matter of faith to be held by the Church. St. John Chrysostom summarizes the tradition of the Church saying: “Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.” (Hom. in 1 Cor 41,5)
Definition of hell: Big problem! Vatican II teaches us about hell. It explains that if a person knows and is fully aware that Jesus Christ is our Savior and that Jesus gave the Church the means of salvation, and they still deliberately rejects Christ and the Church till the end of their life, they are in danger of eternal death. These are the four conditions for endangering our eternal salvation: 1) True knowledge of Christ as the Only Savior; 2) The Church was given by Christ as a means of salvation; 3) A deliberate decision to reject Christ and the Church; 4) A decision to reject them until the end of life. The Church teaches that if these four conditions are present, a person is in danger of going to hell. The Catechism summarizes hell in this way: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’. (CCC, 1033)
God never predestines anyone to go to hell: In the teachings of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, it is obvious that God’s will is for everyone to be saved with no exception. Just because God has no time sequence and already knows who will be saved, it does not mean that he predestines us to be saved or condemned. God’s eternal will does not change and it is our salvation since we were created by him and for him. Those who go to hell, they choose that fate freely and consciously (see CCC, 1033-1037). St. Peter rightly teaches that God does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Officially the Council of Orange (529) states: “God predestines no one to go to hell.”
Is it possible to reject Christ and the Church until the end of life: Is it possible that a person could truly know that Christ is their Savior who established the Church as a means of salvation, and still freely reject that until the end of their life? An example will illustrate the complexity of this theology. Suppose I meet a family whose son Joseph is super intelligent. Everyone thinks that he might be the doctor to find a cure for cancer, but his family does not have any money. I fund the money asking the parents not to tell Joseph who I was. Joseph becomes the most important doctor in the world, and in fact he does find a cure for cancer. One day he is driving his Ferrari in Rome and I, driving behind him, hit him by mistake. He comes out of his car and beats me up to the point of almost killing me. He does not know who I am. If he knew that I am the one who “saved” him, do you think he would still have beaten me up like that? If he knew who I was and still decided to beat me or kill me, how evil of a person would he be? Still it is possible to not choose God as the Catechism teaches: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice.” (CCC, 1033)
Hell as negation of God’s very purpose of creating us: In my opinion many people who think they know Christ and the Church, don’t really know in the full sense of the word. But is it possible for someone to truly know and still decide to be evil? Yes, because they have a free will. The tragedy of hell consists in this: God made the human person to inherit eternal life, body and soul. In the same way the body dies, hell is the death of the soul. The death of the soul is hell, and thus it is the negation of the identity of a person who was created by God to perfect their being not for their being to “die”. Hell reverses God’s plan of eternal life. Thus, it is the ultimate reversal of the person’s identity, which suffers eternal death instead of eternal life. In heaven we pass from glory to glory as we are immersed in the infinite God. Hell is the negation of all that: the human being passes into more and more death of the being instead of its glorification. The being continues to exist but in a reverse state of being: death instead of life.
Hell exists even though the Church has never confirmed that a “specific” person went to hell. The Bible does not confirm that Judas, who betrayed Jesus, went to Hell. Actually, the Acts of the Apostles state that he went to “the place prepared for him.” (Acts 1) The Church will never identify that “place” as hell. Where someone goes after death is the exclusive decision of God. It is the Church’s responsibility to identity and confirm certain actions as grave sins, but deciding who goes where is totally and completely up to God.
Because of the heroic lives of many saints, the Church has canonized many faithful, confirming their immediate presence in heaven at the moment of death. May all of us, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, inherit eternal life and be with God forever, body and soul.