Throughout our lives, we are exposed to sin, darkness, sickness, and ultimately— death. However, in joining ourselves to Jesus Christ and His Church, we are provided with hope. In receiving this hope, we are like the Psalmist:
How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, God of Hosts. My soul is longing and yearning, is yearning for the courts of the Lord. (84)
A priest friend once described death as our falling asleep and awakening in a place we could only dream of. Having arrived there, we come to understand that we were carried there by the One who both loves and created us!
At our death, the Church teaches that a process ensues: judgment, purgatory, heaven, or hell. As humans, we desire to understand the timing of such things, but are left to the mercy of God, who lives outside of time.
The particular judgment refers to each person’s account of their own life at the end of their earthly existence. “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.” (CCC, #1021). “At this time, a person will be awarded entrance into the blessedness of heaven- through a purification or immediately, or immediate and everlasting damnation.” (CCC, #1022).
Purgatory, also known as “purification,” is not related to the punishment of the damned. Rather, “as for certain 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.” (CCC, #1031). This teaching is directly related to both scripture (Judas Maccabeus made attonement for the dead) and tradition. In the prayers of the Church, there is a memory of the dead and prayers offered on their behalf.
Hell may be described as the reality of eternal damnation. God’s gift to us of “free choice” provides for the reality that we may freely choose to exclude ourselves from God through the gravity of our actions. The Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity- a chief punishment of man’s turning away from the truth. As Jesus reminds us: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Mt. 7:13-14).
In contrast, Heaven is secured for those “who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified. For these, they shall live forever with Christ.” (CCC, #1023). “Heaven, therefore, is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness. To live in heaven is to be with Christ. The elect live in Christ, but they retain, or rather find, their true identity, their own name.” (CCC, #1024-1025).
The possibility of the beatific vision before the resurrection of the body, or the contemplation of God in his heavenly glory, is a subject of faith. It is believed that St. Francis, among others, was granted the privilege of “seeing God as He is.”
With the exception of the last, the realities of judgment, purgatory, hell, and heaven may each be found in sacred scripture whereas the idea that some have been granted the gift of the beatific vision before the resurrection of the body is grounded in the Tradition of the Church.
In the end, we are called to understand that God loves us so intently that He willingly offers a “fundamental option” to choose Him while providing us with the necessary graces in which to do so. “The God of all grace will confirm, strengthen, and support you.” (1 Pet. 5:10-11). In addition, members of the Church also receive the special gifts of Baptism, Eucharist, and the other sacraments to provide us affirmation and strength. Throughout our journey, God is always there, gently calling us home and to holiness (even in our sin). As such, our fundamental option becomes one of joining ourselves to the everlasting God through our faith- manifested in charity and love- or of turning from God’s gentle call.
The choice, however, is uniquely ours. Not one of us is exempt from the Last Things. With the table spread, we are provided with the choice of life or death. May we choose life.