Let’s get the bad news out of the way right off the bat: we’re all going to die. While we may not think about it very often, death is inevitable. It often takes a personal brush with death or the illness or loss of a loved one to make us even consider our own mortality. Whether you fear it or would be willing to face it with courage, you can’t avoid death. When Christians talk about death, we are speaking of the end of our earthly lives… the moment where an individual’s soul separates from his or her body (which will decay while awaiting resurrection at Jesus’ return.)
But if we all die, what happens next? In Catholic tradition, death is the first of the “last four things” – death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
Matthew 25:31-46 paints a grim picture of the second of these last things: judgment. In this story, Jesus separates the righteous from the wicked as a shepherd celebrates sheep from goats – inviting one to Heaven and condemning the other to hell. You might hear judgment discussed in a Christian context in two ways: first of all, the last or final judgement, when Jesus returns to triumph in glory over evil (a battle already won by His resurrection); and second, the particular judgement any individual soul faces at the moment of his or her death. In both cases, Jesus’ simple criteria is based on the great commandent: loving God and loving neighbor (Mark 12:28-34.) The love with which we show the least of our neighbors is reflective of the love we have for Christ (see the scripture passage above.) C.S. Lewis makes the distinction thus: There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says in the end ‘thy will be done.’ In this way, we talk about our own particular judgement as being the result of free choices. This is why St. John Paul II spoke of Hell as a self-imposed punishment, so when we die, God gives us what we loved the most: Himself… or ourselves.
The third of the “last things” is Heaven and Hell. While there are many popularized images both: a bright Heaven featuring clouds, angels, and harps; and Hell rife with fire, devils, pitchforks, and various forms of torture; there’s a lot more to consider here.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Heaven simply:
This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity, this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed – is called “heaven.” Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1024)
Just before the turn of the millenium, Pope John Paul II spent three weeks of Wednesday audiences speaking about Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. When discussing Heaven, he took it a step further, stating that: the ‘Heaven’ or ‘happiness’ in which we will find ourselves is neither an abstraction, nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. The Bible refers to this living relationship in the context of the ‘Beatific vision’ – the place where we will see God face to face. He knows us as we really are now… then, we’ll see Him as He really is. While we can find all sorts of images to descrive Heaven throughout scripture: life, light, a wedding feast, the wine of the Kingdom, the Father’s house, the Heavenly Jerusalem, Paradise; John Paul II himself said that the one-flesh union of marriage is a foreshadowing of what God has in store for us. The truth is, however, that there is no joy, no human experience, no great time you or I have ever had that Heaven will not surpass.
Hell, on the other hand, is the opposite: an eternal separation from God. The Catechism says:
We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor, or against ourselves… to die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell.’ (CCC #1033)
Images of hell like a ‘pool of fire’ are meant to show a sense of emptiness and complete frustation of being separated from God. This is the main punishment of hell – not torture, fire, or anything like that: but being separated from the God for whom we were created, without whom our hearts are restless, left alone for all eternity. Think about it… God is Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, and being separated from Him would mean never seeing, feeling, tasting, or experiencing anything that is true, good or beautiful ever again.
Ultimately, whatever you read on these last four things, the point is always the same: our eternal destiny is dependent on the way we live our lives. God wants us in Heaven… and we need to live as though that is where we’re headed, because that is where Christ called us to follow Him to. It is the place where He has made all things new, where every tear will be wiped away and their will be no more death, no more pain, no more suffering… we will literally live in love.