We are created to know, love, and serve God in this life, so as to be happy with him in the next. In fact, everything exists for our union with God, through Christ, in His Mystical Body, the Church. While God’s plan for each person differs from person to person, every man, woman and child who has ever lived and will ever live, was created to be a saint. No matter our state in life, our wealth, or education, we are all called to enjoy eternal life with God in Heaven.
What is eternal life with God in Heaven? It is taking our place around the throne of God, in the great dance of love, joy and happiness that is God’s very existence, without it ever ending. Because our eternal union (or disunion) with God for all eternity is so important, we need to know and understand it well. This requires a study of the novissima, what Christians traditionally call the four last things: death, judgement, Heaven, and Hell. There is no other way to interpret the teachings of Christ both in the Sacred Scriptures and through the tradition of his Church: everyone will die, everyone will be judged, and everyone will end up in Heaven or Hell.
Through what has been revealed, we distinguish two types of judgement: the particular judgement and the general judgement. We will focus on the particular, or individual judgement, because this is the judgement for which we must prepare. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that when we die, our souls depart this world immediately to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory (1022).
Many people think of their personal judgement as a vindictive moment, in which God, the ever-angry, is looking for reasons to smite them. The language of the Scriptures, when mis-read, can lead to this perspective, as well as the common language of the Church, especially in her catechesis. The judicial language makes it easier to explain and understand, but should not be the only way we understand judgement.
For example, St. John of the Cross says, “At the end of life, we will be judged by love” because God is love (1 John 4: 8). The best summary I have found is this:
God is Truth and Light. God’s judgment is nothing else than our coming into contact with truth and light. In the day of the Great Judgment all men will appear naked before this penetrating light of truth. The “books” will be opened. What are these “books”? They are our hearts. Our hearts will be opened by the penetrating light of God, and what is in these hearts will be revealed. If in those hearts there is love for God, those hearts will rejoice seeing God’s light. If, on the contrary, there is hatred for God in those hearts, these men will suffer by receiving on their opened hearts this penetrating light of truth which they detested all their life.” (Dr. Alexandre Kalomiros, citing St. Peter Damascene, St. Symeon the New Theologian, and St. Makarious the Great in The River of Fire, p. 18, cited in The Hidden Key to Harry Potter, p. 177)
This idea is quite Scriptural. No man can see the face of God and live (Exodus 33:20; John 1: 18). He himself is a consuming fire (Psalm 67(68): 3-4; cf. Hebrews 12: 29). What the dispositions of our hearts are towards God will determine how we will react to him when we pass through the “veil” and see him “face-to-face” at death. Heaven and Hell are the “effects” or “consequences” of the state of our hearts.
The general or universal judgement “will be a social judgment because it will manifest to the world God’s justice in condemning sinners, and his mercy in those who are saved. It will also be a total judgment by revealing not only people’s moral conduct but all the accumulated blessings or injuries that resulted from each person’s good or evil deeds” (Fr. Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary). The distinction here is that this judgement is not individual. At the general judgement, nothing is going to change regarding our eternal destiny after our particular judgement.
Hell is defined as “[t]he place and state of eternal punishment for the fallen angels and human beings who die deliberately estranged from the love of God. There is a twofold punishment in hell: the pain of loss, which consists in the deprivation of the vision of God, and the pain of sense, which consists in the suffering caused by outside material things. The punishment of hell is eternal, as declared by Christ in his prediction of the last day (St. Matthew 25:46), and as defined by the Fourth Lateran Council, stating that the wicked will ‘receive a perpetual punishment with the devil’ (Denzinger 801). The existence of hell is consistent with divine justice, since God respects human freedom and those who are lost actually condemn themselves by their resistance to the grace of God” (Fr. Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary).
If Hell seems harsh, then look at it from a human point of view (and I apologize in advance if this is triggering to anyone):
If a woman marries a man who is everything that she could ever ask for and provides for everything that she could ever want, and does so for many, many years, but, one day, he beats her, is she expected to simply ignore that this happened because of all the previous good things he did for her in the past? Certainly not! Is a simple “I’m sorry” going to repair the relationship? Of course not! Can the relationship be mended? Yes, but not easily. It’s going to take a lot of work to reestablish that relationship and depending on his attitude and the maturity of his wife, it might take a long time. (That’s with humans, of course – God will always accept a truly repentant sinner immediately.) The state of the relationship is not a sum total of the good vs. bad, but what the status of the relationship is at the moment.
If you want an image of sin, especially mortal sin, look to Jesus Crucified. How can we contribute to the Passion and Death of Christ and not expect that we owe Him true repentance and make some kind of amends for what our sins have done?
God does not send us to Hell for just one mortal sin. By mortal sin, we cut ourselves off from the friendship of God. No matter what our relationship has been, if we reject Him, that rejection continues until we turn back to him, ask for forgiveness and seek to repair the relationship. If we die in a state of having alienated ourselves from God by our own free choice, then we spend eternity in that state: Hell.
Now, there are some common concerns with the doctrine of Hell which should be addressed, because, subconsciously (or even consciously) many people do not believe in Hell. Often they cannot accept there is a Hell. Because people do not believe that Hell exists, they see no reason to avoid it or help others to avoid it.
Why would a loving God send anyone to Hell? God desires that all be saved (1 Timothy 2: 4). The truth is that we cannot attribute Hell to an unloving God, but to an unloving creation. Love requires freedom and God respects our freedom all the way to Hell. For those who freely choose to separate themselves from the love of God, he will respect that decision for eternity. Everyone who is in Hell had all the chances they needed to be saved.
Another concern people have is with the state of a person who dies without Baptism. The reason we baptize is because we have been commanded to do so by Jesus Christ (Matthew 28: 18-20). God is not bound by the Sacraments, but we are. In other words, we ought to make disciples and bring them to Baptism, but God is not limited by this Sacrament. We see this in the fact that many individuals from the Old Testament are in Heaven without having received the Sacrament of Baptism and are revered as saints. We do not know how God deals with the unbaptized, but we can be sure that it is good and merciful, because he is good, and his mercy endures forever.
A priest once told a parable that went like this: When someone asks you where you plan to go for vacation, you do not answer “I’m not going to Hawaii” or “I’m not going to Alaska.” The same should be for us as Christians regarding eternal life. Many people have thought of life after death as “not going to Hell.” But the reason to not go to Hell is that we should want to go to Heaven.
Heaven is defined as “[t]he place and condition of perfect supernatural happiness. This happiness consists essentially in the immediate vision and love of God, and secondarily in the knowledge, love, and enjoyment of creatures. Until the final resurrection, except for Christ and his Mother, only the souls of the just are in heaven. After the last day, the just will be in heaven in body and soul. Although the same God will be seen by all and enjoyed by all, not everyone will have the same degree of happiness. The depth of beatitude will depend on the measure of God’s grace with which a person dies, and this in turn will be greatly conditioned by the merits that one earns during life on earth. Heaven is eternal because it will never cease. It is continuous because its joys never stop. It is communal because the happiness is shared with the angels and saints and the company of those who were known and loved on earth” (Fr. Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary).
Heaven is nothing more or less than the ultimate union with God, the ultimate intimacy. People always ask if they are going to enjoy the things that they enjoy on Earth in Heaven. The answer is simple: everything that you enjoy in a creature is merely a shadow of the Creator. Therefore, even without enjoying that person or thing or activity in Heaven, you will have in Heaven what you actually wanted when you enjoyed them on Earth. You will have eternal union with God, your Creator.
- This article is part one of a four part series. The series continues with Novissima Pt. 2: Called to be Saints.
- Cover Image: “The Last Judgment” (c. 1431) by Fra Angelico.