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What happens when we die?

What happens when we die? How can a loving God allow souls to go to hell? What is purgatory? Find out answers to common questions about Catholic Church teaching on death and eternal life in this blog.

What is eternal life?

Eternal life begins with Baptism. It continues through death and will have no end.

Even when we are simply in love, we want this state of affairs to last forever. “God is love”, says the First Letter of John (1 Jn 4:16). “Love”, says the First Letter to the Corinthians, “never ends” (1 Cor 13:8). God is eternal because he is love; and love is everlasting because it is divine. If we are in love, we enter into God’s endless presence.

Will we be brought to judgment after death?

The so-called particular or personal judgment occurs at the moment of death of the individual. The general judgment, which is also called the Last Judgment, occurs on the Last Day, at the end of the world, when the Lord comes again.

In dying every man arrives at the moment of truth. Now it is no longer possible to repress or conceal anything; nothing more can be changed. God sees us as we are. We come before his tribunal, where he proclaims and brings about what is just. Perhaps we will still have to undergo a process of purification, or maybe we will be able to fall into God’s arms immediately. But perhaps we will be so full of wickedness, hatred, and denial of everything that we will turn our face away from love forever, away from God. A life without love, however, is nothing but hell.

What is heaven?

Heaven is the endless moment of love. Nothing more separates us from God, whom our soul loves and has sought our whole life long. Together with all the angels and saints we will be able to rejoice forever in and with God.

If you have ever observed a couple looking at each other lovingly or seen a baby nursing who looks for his mother’s eyes as though it wanted to store up every smile forever, then you have some inkling of heaven. To be able to see God face to face—that is like one, single, never-ending moment of love.

What is purgatory?

Purgatory, often imagined as a place, is actually a condition. Someone who dies in God’s grace (and therefore at peace with God and men) but who still needs purification before he can see God face to face is in purgatory.

When Peter had betrayed Jesus, the Lord turned around and looked at Peter: “And Peter went out and wept bitterly”—a feeling like being in purgatory. Just such a purgatory probably awaits most of us at the moment of our death: the Lord looks at us full of love—and we experience burning shame and painful remorse over our wicked or “merely” unloving behavior. Only after this purifying pain will we be capable of meeting his loving gaze in untroubled heavenly joy.

Can we help the departed who are in the condition of purgatory?

Yes, since all those who are baptized into Christ form one communion and are united with one another, the living can also help the souls of the faithful departed in purgatory.

When a man is dead, he can do nothing more for himself. The time of active probation is past. But we can do something for the faithful departed in purgatory. Our love extends into the afterlife. Through our fasting, prayers, and good works, but especially through the celebration of Holy Eucharist, we can obtain grace for the departed.

What is hell?

Hell is the condition of everlasting separation from God, the absolute absence of love.

Someone who consciously and with full consent dies in serious sin, without repenting, and refuses God’s merciful, forgiving love forever, excludes himself from communion with God and the saints. Our freedom makes that decision possible. Jesus warns us again and again not to separate ourselves definitively from him by shutting our hearts against the need of his brothers and sisters: “Depart from me, you cursed …. As you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (Mt 25:41, 45). 53

But if God is love, how can there be a hell?

God does not damn men. Man himself is the one who refuses God’s merciful love and voluntarily deprives himself of (eternal) life by excluding himself from communion with God.

God yearns for communion even with the worst sinner; he wants everyone to convert and be saved. Yet God created man to be free and respects his decisions. Even God cannot compel love. As a lover he is “powerless” when someone chooses hell instead of heaven.

What is the Last Judgment?

The Last Judgment will take place at the end of the world, at the second coming of Christ. “All who are in the tombs will hear his 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” (Jn 5:29). 

When Christ comes again in glory, his full splendor will shine upon us. The truth will come plainly to light: our thoughts, our deeds, our relationship to God and to other men—nothing will remain hidden. We will recognize the ultimate meaning of creation, comprehend God’s marvelous ways for the sake of our salvation, and finally receive also an answer to the question of why evil can be so powerful if God is in fact the Almighty. The Last Judgment is also our day in court. Here it is decided whether we will rise to eternal life or be separated from God forever. Toward those who have chosen life, God will act creatively once again. In a “new body” (see 2 Cor 5) they will live forever in God’s glory and praise him with body and soul.

How will the world come to an end?

At the end of time, God will create a new heaven and a new earth. Evil will no longer have any power or attractiveness. The redeemed will stand face to face with God—as his friends. Their yearning for peace and justice will be fulfilled. To behold God will be their blessedness. The Triune God will dwell among them and wipe away every tear from their eyes; there will be no more death, sorrow, lamentation, or trouble.

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