Heaven, Hell, Death, & Judgment
Q: What is it like in heaven?
A: This a perfect question for a perfect subject. Heaven is spending all eternity with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Harps and clouds need not be included. When we are in heaven we are perfectly happy, for there is no greater joy than to spend forever with the One who created us and loves us more dearly than anyone else. You see, we have been created to love and to know God. While on earth we try our best to love and know God, in heaven we will do both perfectly. Recall how in the Lord’s Prayer we say “Thy kingdom come and thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?” That means we do not sit around and wait for heaven to come to us. We, as brothers and sisters of the Catholic Church have told God that we will try to be very good, like the saints before us, and, therefore, will help bring heaven to earth.
Q: During the prayers at Mass, it says, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” I thought we were judged once at our death and that judgment was final. Are we judged again?
A: Thank you for the segue from the first question, for you address the very Creed which we proclaim at Mass. You rightly point out that together we profess in the Creed that Jesus Christ truly “will return to judge the living and the dead.” Reference we have here is that regardless of who you and I happen to be, we will sit before the judgment seat of the Lord to answer to how we lived our lives consistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or not.
This is not meant to frighten us into blind faith, but to remind us that Jesus has entrusted us with our lives and with one another for which we have personal responsibility. Jesus has given us life as well as the gift of eternal life. We are asked to respond in a grateful and loving manner.
Before I get off the point of your question, I now address the question of being judged more than once. Do not worry, we do not live life in double jeopardy in which we could be judged a second time. God will not second guess his judgment on you and me. In the end, at the final judgment when Jesus Christ returns to our world for the final judgment, this will bring to conclusion the judgment of the human race and the complete destruction of evil. Not one of us will be overlooked, for each of us is responsible for our conduct.
How fortunate we are that we have a Savior who loves us so dearly and so deeply that he gave his life for us, in order that there is hope for us at the final judgment. It is quite clear that not one of us can save ourselves. Yet through a little baby born in a manger in Bethlehem to our Mother in Faith, Mary, and her husband, Jesus’ foster dad, Joseph, we witness firsthand that with God nothing is impossible.
Q: When Jesus died and the souls went to heaven, what happened to the people who died before? Did they go to heaven?
A: Good question, for we know that following Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, he opened the gates of heaven in order that we may enter and spend all eternity with him. As Catholics, we also profess and recognize the truth that Jesus personally went to visit the souls of our brothers and sisters who lived and died before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Jesus made heaven accessible not just for us who lived following his Resurrection and Ascension to the Father, but also for those who waited for Jesus’ arrival in human history.
Just think how grateful the faithful whose names we read in the Old Testament were when Jesus came for them? We have such great biblical giants like Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Elijah who placed their hope in the living God and now they would see him, Jesus the Christ. The story of the faithful who lived before Jesus’ birth ends on an eternally happy note. Their hopes have been fulfilled by the same Jesus in which we place all hope.
Q: How do we know about purgatory if no one has been there and come back? We know this is a period of cleansing, but how do we know this?
A: We do have in the Old Testament affirmation of a time of purification and request for mercy and forgiveness of those who have gone before us in the Second Book of Maccabees. In this story, Judas Maccabees and his brothers and friends make an offering to God to have mercy on those of their fellow brothers who died in battle but may not have been completely faithful in their service to God. Since the beginning of the Catholic Church, founded by Jesus Christ in his work with the Apostles, we have believed in the truth of purgatory.
We need not have somebody return from purgatory to tell us it exists, but in truth, it does. You see, while God wants us to be with him forever, we also know that we may not be ready to see him face to face when our time here in this world is over. Referring to the previous question, we have the great gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which provides us the ability to be more like Jesus Christ in this world and for some this also is a sacrament that prepares them to go to God in eternal life.
One way to view purgatory is by looking at our own life with family. For example, perhaps as children, we have misbehaved, and when dinner comes, we simply expect to have dessert. However, our mom or dad tells us that we have not earned that dessert by misbehaving, but if we clean our room before dinner, then we may just get that dessert. Hopefully, this is not an over simplification of purgatory, but a reminder that in his mercy God shows us the way to Heaven, which is only through Jesus Christ.
The point is, we have the responsibility to prepare ourselves for going to heaven, but there are times that additional purification is necessary before we can rightly be with God forever. This is called purgatory in which the word comes from the Latin word “to purify.” We do have a connection with and a responsibility to our brothers and sisters who are in purgatory, as our prayers can free them or expedite their presence there. We are also quite aware that our membership in the Catholic Church extends beyond death.
Together let us pray for the souls in purgatory, that through the mercy of God and our prayers they will quickly have opportunity to be with Jesus Christ in heaven forever. This is done through prayer, as well as almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance in honor of our friends and loved ones who have died. How blessed we are as Catholics to have so many ways in which to participate in the mission of Jesus Christ in showing our world that in Jesus’ holy name there always is hope. After all, we are made in God’s image and likeness, and he wishes us to be with him forever.
Q: How long does it take to get out of purgatory?
A: While purgatory does exist, we also understand it is not simply a place like Steubenville or Atlanta. What we do know is that a purification occurs during the soul’s participation in purgatory. Purgatory prepares the soul to be properly disposed to see Jesus Christ and to, consequently, remain with God for all eternity.
This being said, it is, of course, God’s decision when one is ready to enter heaven. This may seem like a lot to understand, for you and I live in a world in which we measure time in all we do. In the reality of purgatory what most matters is one’s unworthiness to go to heaven but that, through purification, that will not always be the case. We use time in this world to understand purgatory because as all of us are aware, time is the measurement we have here in measuring the sequence of events or to ready oneself for a destination. How blessed we are to know that God prepares us for our final destination, which is heaven.
Q: Will people who are not baptized still go to heaven?
A: Here is the long answer: Baptism is participation in the life of God. In this gift of the Sacrament of Baptism, we are brought into the Trinitarian life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In Baptism, Original Sin is destroyed, and as a result, we more fully realize our potential as human beings made in God’s image and likeness. Unfortunately, this potential was lost by our first parents, Adam and Eve, with Original Sin.
We cannot fully reach our potential outside the reception of Baptism. Here you have raised a grave concern: Can one be received into Heaven having not been baptized? We are fully aware that we live in a world in which not all people have been baptized. We should pray for them. Of course, we do pray for them throughout the year, especially in the Prayers of the Faithful at the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ on Good Friday. This having being said, we also are confident in God’s Divine Mercy. And so, as many among us will die not having been baptized, we entrust them with Jesus Christ’s Divine Mercy.
How fortunate we are to have this holy gift of the Sacrament of Baptism, for Jesus welcomes us into his life. Baptism is not “becoming a member of a club.” No, the Sacrament of Baptism is so much more, for Jesus gives us a gift of the highest blessing of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a gift which is with us always. We also know when we sin we fail to remember this beautiful gift. How fortunate we are to have another beautiful gift in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, which brings us back to that full embrace of Jesus Christ.
In the meantime, together let us pray for all of our brothers and sisters who have died, all those baptized and those nonbaptized, that we may have opportunity to be together again as one family in Jesus Christ.
Q: Do priests go to purgatory?
A: Priests have been chosen by God from among the people of God. In other words, members of the presbyterate are members of the people of God. Therefore, priests (and bishops) who die may also have to undergo the purging process of purgatory which is necessary before entering eternal life with God, namely, heaven.
God’s mercy extends to all of us and so the possibility of purgatory also is applicable to priests and bishops. While we priests and bishops focus our efforts to get everyone to heaven, we want to be there with you as well. To be a priest is no guarantee that he has a free ticket to heaven. A priest’s responsibility is to get you a ticket to heaven, and thank goodness the tickets are never in short supply. How about we all act in a way that we can just avoid purgatory and go right to heaven? In the end, we live our lives not to avoid purgatory, but to spend eternal life with God.
Q: How do you know for sure that you are going to Heaven?
A: Eternal Life with God is a definite possibility, for Jesus Christ, through his Suffering, Death, Resurrection and Ascension to the Father has made it so (this is called the Paschal Mystery). However, God also has given us free will. In other words, you and I tell God where we would like to go by how we live our lives here and now.
Jesus wants all of us with him in heaven and you and I should be very grateful to him for his eternal gift. As for being certain whether or not you and I are going to heaven, we are instructed by Jesus that if we follow him and live our lives fittingly as ones imitating Jesus himself, then we will be with him for all eternity. We know for certain there is a heaven and Jesus wants us to be there with him. And so, together, let us live like Jesus and pray for one another and all of our families that we all will be together in heaven someday.