Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The 'Last Things':
Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell
My mother spoke of yearning to see my dad in heaven.
A friend—s response shattered her: "But you—ll be so happy looking
at God you won—t even notice Sandy." Mother, of course, was speaking
the hope of reunion to which grieving hearts cling. Her friend was
echoing the Church—s teaching that heaven—s joy is focused on enjoying
the "beatific vision," seeing God face-to-face. Who was right—Mother,
her friend, or both of them?
We have, of course, no details of life in heaven.
No tourists have come back with a scrapbook filled with snapshots.
We do have some informed speculation. A branch of theology with
a jaw-breaking name (eschatology, a word derived from the
Greek for "last") searches Scripture, tradition and our understanding
of the world for clues to the "last things": death, judgment, heaven
and hell. This Update will explore Catholic belief about
these issues—what we hold and how we got there.
Death: The final certainty
Everything that lives on earth must die. That much
is certain. From tender petunias to ancient sequoias, from single-celled
creatures viewed under a microscope to the complex, intelligent
species we call human beings, the astonishing variety of life that
inhabits Planet Earth has a limited span. As far as we know, we
are the only creatures who resist and deny that truth.
And resist we do! As a dying friend, a woman of deep
faith, said to me: "It—s just that you know what you have
here, and it—s very hard to leave."
The first thing we do not know is what death is.
Previous generations had a different concept of the physical reality
than we hold: When a person—s breath no longer clouded a mirror,
when a heart no longer beat within a chest, death had arrived. In
our era, that can be just a "code blue"—a signal for hospital personnel
to come running, a state which an individual may survive to enjoy
many more years of good health. Today we talk about brain death
and measure that organ—s activity with high-tech machinery.
On a more philosophical level, Christians have for
centuries spoken of the moment when the soul leaves the body—terminology
that the human Jesus, like his Jewish contemporaries, would have
found a bit strange. In Jewish thought, a human being was an indivisible
whole. It was the Greeks who thought of us as a spiritual essence
trapped in a body. When Christianity spread beyond Jerusalem to
the Greek world, it adopted their idea.
Modern science, with its measurement of brain activity
and its unraveling of the marvelous strands of DNA that make us
the unique individuals we are, has swung us back along the arc of
history, bringing us closer to Jesus— contemporaries— holistic understanding.
We are indeed body-persons; our identity is closely linked to our
History has also shaped our concepts of life after
death. What we believe today about heaven and hell and judgment
has developed slowly over many centuries. It is a tapestry woven
not only of our understanding of physical reality, but also of varied
concepts of God, of divine wrath and divine mercy.
The constants of belief
There are two primary constants in Christian belief.
One is faith in Jesus— resurrection, the conviction that we, like
him, will rise again. The other is our faith that Jesus will return
to judge the world.
Even belief in the resurrection of the dead, so central
to Christian faith, didn—t suddenly spring into being on Easter
morning. Before Jesus was born, it was developing slowly in Judaism;
in Jesus— day it was still an idea new enough to argue about. Some
Jews—the Pharisees—accepted it; others—the Sadducees—did not. The
Gospels tell of the Sadducees— attempt to make the idea look ridiculous
by asking Jesus whose wife a woman widowed seven times would be
in the next life. But Jesus affirmed the resurrection, insisting
that God is "God not of the dead but of the living" (see Mark 12:18-27).
No one saw Jesus leave the tomb; we have no hint
of just what happened on Easter morning. The Gospels record just
two things: (1) The tomb was found empty and (2) the people who
had loved and followed Jesus saw him alive after his burial. Yet
that scrappy testimony inspires a conviction about Jesus— resurrection
and ours: It is bodily. Like the Lord, we will rise not as disembodied
souls, but as whole persons.
We will rise—but when and how? Scripture gives
a few clues to the how. The disciples experienced the risen
Lord as physically present. He ate (Luke 24:29-30, 41-43). He invited
Thomas to touch the wounds he suffered on Calvary (John 20:27).
Yet he moved without regard for physical limits, suddenly appearing
in locked rooms (John 20:19, 26). His body was not the same as it
St. Paul, who never knew Jesus in his earthly life
but ran smack into him on the road to Damascus, answered the how
question this way: "[The body] is sown a natural body; it is
raised a spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15:44). The resurrection
we anticipate, like Jesus— own, lies beyond the physical restraints
of the world we know.
When was a question for many centuries. The
first Christians thought that the dead simply slept, awaiting Jesus—
return. Of course, they expected him to show up any day. As centuries
rolled by without Jesus— return in glory, believers began to debate
the fate of the dead in the meantime. Not until 1336 did Pope Benedict
XII define as dogma the long-growing conviction that people faced
an individual judgment and entered heaven, hell or purgatory immediately
after death. Our Christian belief that our beloved dead are with
God and therefore still close to us, within the reach of our prayers,
reflects that doctrine.
It—s important to remember that the folks who first
shaped our ideas of heaven and hell—purgatory, too—had to think
of them as places situated above the skies or beneath the
world. Their world was the center around which the sun moved. Medieval
theologians could not in their wildest dreams imagine anything like
the far-flung universe we know, much less a reality beyond space
While bodily resurrection would seem to require some
kind of a place (a question we—ll explore later), it—s much more
helpful to think of the "places" of the afterlife as the Catholic
Encyclopedia defines them: primarily states of being.
Two such states are already familiar to us: One is life as we now
know it. The other we don—t remember, but before birth we dwelled
in underwater darkness, aware of little but our mother—s heartbeat.
In Christian belief, death is very like birth: beginning a wholly
new way of being, and knowing at last the Person who has been carrying
us all along.
Facing God—s judgment
As Shakespeare—s Hamlet put it, "Aye, there—s the
rub." It is the thought of judgment that strikes fear into the Christian
soul. Who among us dares to stand face-to-face with God? Who among
us dares to own the darkness that lurks within us? The very word
judgment becomes, in our minds, condemnation.
That—s not the dictionary definition of the word.
Webster speaks of authoritative opinion, a formal court decision,
discernment and comparison.
More importantly, the people who shaped our faith
centuries ago, the Jewish people who were Jesus— own forebears,
didn—t think of condemnation when they spoke of judgment. They didn—t
see themselves as defendants in a criminal court. Rather,
they saw themselves as plaintiffs in a civil action, seeking
redress from God for their suffering.
Like their Jewish ancestors, Christians await vindication.
Speaking of the signs that announce his imminent return on the last
day, Jesus told his followers to "stand erect and raise your heads
because your redemption is at hand" (Luke 21:28). We fear condemnation
because we too easily focus on our own weaknesses and failures rather
than on God—s goodness. In truth, were the scales of justice truly
balanced, we would surely stand condemned. Nothing we do, nothing
we are comes within light-years of God—s holiness. The bottom line
is not that we must earn eternal life but, rather, that God
has lovingly given it to us. "God proves his love for us in that
while we were still sinners Christ died for us," Paul wrote (Romans
5:8). And Jesus prayed that his disciples and all future believers
"may be with me where I am" (John 17:24).
St. Paul speaks of facing judgment with imagery that
again recalls birth: "At present I know partially; then I shall
know fully, as I am fully known" (1 Corinthians 13:12, emphasis
added). We wear a lot of masks to keep from being known. Perhaps
no one judges us more harshly than we judge ourselves. But every
now and then someone catches us off guard by peeking behind our
masks and loving us as we are—a surprise someone called the most
magical: "God—s finger on one—s shoulder." Truly, no one knows us
so well and yet loves us with such enduring passion as God does.
The Last Judgment
Centuries of Christian art reflect many changes in
our understanding of Christ—s triumphant return. That event was
eagerly awaited by the first believers. Into the early Middle Ages,
works of art suggest joy rather than terror. Typical is a carving
on the tomb of a bishop buried in 608: The elect, wakening from
death—s sleep, lift their arms to acclaim the returning Lord. Some
500 years later, another detail appears: the separation of the damned,
the scene Jesus describes in Matthew 25:31-46. Their misery becomes
more dominant and more horribly detailed as the centuries roll by.
The reasons for the change are too complex to explore
here, but it seems apparent that Christianity took a rather gloomy
turn after its first millennium ended without Jesus— return on clouds
of glory. The Dies Irae, a hymn describing the terrors of
Judgment Day, became part of the funeral liturgy and remained until
the post-Vatican II liturgical reform.
Modern Scripture scholarship warns against taking
biblical descriptions of judgment and punishment too literally.
Jesus used this imagery, says theologian Richard McBrien, "to dramatize
the urgency of his proclamation of the Kingdom and the seriousness
of our decisions for or against the Kingdom."
Today we are returning to the positive aspects of
Christ—s return as Judge. This is the hour when we should indeed
"raise our heads." Then our troubled world will become a new creation—the
"new heavens and new earth" of Revelation 21:1 in which our risen
bodies will dwell. God—s creation is too precious to be wasted;
the Creator wants to save it all.
Heaven: A world made new
The material of that new creation—s construction
is beyond our knowing. Our bodies will not likely be all our molecules
reconstructed. (Which molecules? Every cell in our bodies is replaced
many times in a lifetime!) Neither is the physical construction
of the new earth what really matters. What counts is its transformation
into the vision dear to the prophets— hearts: a world without suffering
The favorite image of biblical authors is a banquet,
a gigantic party replete with rich foods and choice wines (see Isaiah
25:6). That image sheds some light on the argument between my mother
and her friend about what faces we will see in heaven: our loved
ones— or only God—s. You can—t enter fully into the spirit of a
party if you ignore all the other guests. Indeed, when Jesus depicted
the judgment scene that inspired later Christian artists, he spoke
of attention to others: "I was hungry and you gave me food..." (Matthew
Ever since God gave Moses commandments which held
a people responsible to God for harming a neighbor, our relationship
with God has been tied up with our relationships to other people.
Popular writer Father Leonard Foley, O.F.M., once speculated that
in heaven we will, like God, be able to love perfectly.
Jesus rose with the scars of his crucifixion still
apparent on his body. We will rise as individuals with a history,
people scarred by our sinfulness and that of others, but also as
people who, like Jesus, bear the marks of sacrifices made in the
name of love. St. Paul named three things that last, and insisted
that the greatest is love (see 1 Corinthians 13:13). The love we
give now will endure forever.
In this life, the best parties end. There comes a
point when we cannot hold our eyes open another moment. In thinking
of the life to come, it—s hard for us to imagine that we wouldn—t
tire of anything that goes on forever.
But the address on the invitation to the heavenly
banquet reads "beyond time." Perhaps the closest we have ever come
are those moments when "time stood still," when we were caught up
in love, so absorbed in something outside ourselves that we never
heard the clock tick. Such moments are a foretaste of heaven.
Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk puts it well
in —We Believe—: Essentials of Catholic Faith: Recollect
the finest moments this life offers: the love of family and friends
spoken and shared, the few really generous and disinterested actions
we have performed, the sense of accomplishment at finishing a long
and difficult project..., all the moments that we wish could last
forever. All that will be ours in eternity, affirmed and enhanced
beyond our wildest imagination....
Hell: The demands of justice
But what about punishment? We would be uneasy to
find ourselves seated at the heavenly banquet beside Hitler or Ivan
the Terrible. It—s hard to see how even God—s mercy could run that
deep! What about God—s justice? The best of us must admit that we
deserve some punishment, a taste of purgatory. Our concept of justice
includes punishment. Human beings like the idea of hell—perhaps
better than God does.
Jesus insisted very firmly that God—s justice is
very different from human justice. It has no edge of vindictiveness.
He constantly rebuked the folks who chided him for keeping company
with sinners. See, for example, the call of Matthew (Matthew 9:9-13)
or Jesus— meeting with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).
That said, we have to leave room for human refusal.
We become who we are by the myriad choices we make over a lifetime.
Each decision turns us toward God and neighbor or away from them.
One day our life ends, and with it the ability to
make further choices. We die who we have become over the course
of a lifetime: loving or unloving.
We can reject God—s mercy and love, God—s
invitation to share in divine life. It—s probably more accurate
to say that we damn ourselves than to say that God condemns us to
A well-worn story from Korea illustrates this truth.
In this tale heaven, like the prophet—s image, is a huge dinner
party, but the guests are given chopsticks six feet long. They cannot
feed themselves; they can only put choice tidbits into one another—s
mouths. Hell is just the same, but the guests, too caught up in
selfishness, refuse to feed one another and forever wail their hunger.
"There is nothing to prevent a Christian—s hoping
(not knowing) that in practice the final fate of every human being...by
the power of God—s grace, which dwarfs and also redeems all evil,
will be such that hell will not in the end exist," wrote the great
theologian of our age, Karl Rahner. "Christians may have this hope
(first for others and therefore also for themselves)" but only if
they take the possibility of eternal damnation seriously. To do
less, adds theologian George Vass, "would not do justice to the
seriousness of life, to the importance of moral decisions and the
weight of the individual—s responsibility."
Purgatory: Between heaven and hell
And what about the rest of us, whose lives are a
mix of selfishness and generous love? We sin-plagued individuals
cannot face God without shame. Catholic belief includes a concept
of purgatory—some means of purgation or purification.
It—s a truism that drowning people see their whole
lives unfolding before their eyes. Studies of near-death experiences—the
recollections of those code-blue survivors—report just such an occurrence.
They speak of being enveloped in the warmth and love of a "being
of light," whom they identify in terms of their particular religious
belief as Christ, God or an angel. This being presents them with
a panoramic review of their whole life.
Add that evidence to our understanding that we—re
talking about states of being, about an experience that exists beyond
space and time, and we can say that perhaps purgatory is just a
moment of transition. As Rahner put it, it is "an element of the
encounter with God; that is, the encounter of the unfinished person,
still immature in his love, with the holy, infinite, loving God;
an encounter which is profoundly humiliating, painful and therefore
Catholics pray for the dead and believe that their
prayers can ease the process of purification. Certainly, prayer
transcends time and space. The prayer we breathe today for a loved
one powerfully places u with that person. Lifted beyond the reach
of time, who is to say that it can—t affect any moment in that person—s
history—even the long-ago moment of death when he or she came face-to-face
A future in God's hands
In a pastoral letter Cardinal Joseph Bernardin once
described prayer as "relaxing in the hand of God." In the long run,
the "last things" are, like us, in God—s loving hands. Why waste
time and energy fretting over details no one can determine? We need
only to trust St. Paul—s assurance that "eye has not seen, and ear
has not heard, what God has prepared for those who love him" (see
1 Corinthians 2:9). To quote Rahner again, "Let us for the present
simply have a little patience with history as it runs its course,
with ourselves, and with God."