When a relative dies, we often ask ourselves or wonder “where are they now?” As mortal beings, it is a question of ultimate significance to each of us.
Different cultural groups, and different individuals within them, respond with numerous, often conflicting, answers to questions about life after death. For many, these questions are rooted in the idea of reward for the good (a heaven) and punishment for the wicked (a hell), where earthly injustices are finally righted.
However, these common roots do not guarantee contemporary agreement on the nature, or even the existence, of hell and heaven. Pope Francis himself has raised Catholic eyebrows over some of his comments on heaven, recently telling a young boy that his deceased father, an atheist, was with God in heaven because, by his careful parenting, “he had a good heart.”
So, what is the Christian idea of “heaven”?
First let’s let’s talk about the body and the soul
The body and soul
Catholics believe that each human is made of the body and the soul These are the two parts which make one whole person.
The unity of the soul and body is so deep that one has to consider the soul “form “of the body that’s the soul gives life to the body made of matter Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 365
The main distinction between the body and soul is that the body is mortal and the soul is immortal.
This means that the body is finite, and at death the body ceases to exist.
Catholics believe that the soul will live on after death and go on to the afterlife.The soul is often described as the spiritual aspect of a human.
The Catholic Church teaches that death is not the end. When someone dies, it is only their physical body that stops living. The eternal part of a person, the soul, may go to Heaven or purgatory . Purgatory is where the souls with unforgiven sins will go, so that they can be purified and reach Heaven. Alternatively, souls that have not achieved salvation go to Hell.
Catholics believe that after death they will be judged based on how well they have followed God’s teachings. This is what informs the decision about whether they are sent to Heaven, Purgatory or Hell.
Many Catholics believe that all Christians will eventually go to Heaven and that the good followers of any religion are able to go to Heaven. Some Catholics think that Heaven, Purgatory and Hell are physical places, whereas others consider them more like ‘states’. For example, a soul in Heaven has achieved the state of eternal union with God, whereas a soul in Hell is in a state of eternal separation from God.
In Christianity, heaven is traditionally the location of the throne of God and the angels of God and in most forms of Christianity it is the abode of the righteous dead in the afterlife. In some Christian denominations it is understood as a temporary stage before the resurrection of the dead and the saints’ return to the New Earth.
The Catholic Church teaches that humanity will face two judgements:
- individual judgement
- final judgement
Individual judgement, sometimes called particular judgement, happens at the moment of death when each individual will be judged on how they have lived their life. The soul will then go to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory depending on whether their actions have been judged as being in accordance with God’s teachings or not.
Final judgement will come at the end of time, when all of humanity will be raised from the dead and body and soul will be reunited. Here all will be judged by Christ who will have returned in all his glory. The teaching on judgement is reflected in the Gospels in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats.Matthew 25:32,Matthew 13:47
The Catechism summarized this discussion well: “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” . With God’s grace, we must strive continually to convert our lives and grow in holiness, so that one day we too may enter into the heavenly rest of the Lord.
When a person dies the Catholic Church teaches that they face individual judgement, and where they end up will depend on how they have lived their life.
Those people who have died having faith in God and in a state of grace, but who are still damaged or flawed by venial sin, will end up in Purgatory. This is often described as a ‘limbo’ where souls go to be Cleansed before they can be in the presence of God.